If you’re training for performance then you understand how important it is to fuel your workouts and your competitions. To avoid hitting the wall, many athletes supplement with sports drinks like Gatorade or gels and chomps of various kinds but how do you decide which one to use? Well, being the dork-a-thon that I am, I turned to the scientific literature and this is what I found out:
Multiple types of carbs > single type of carb. Kind of like diversifying your stock portfolio, your body is more efficient at using carbs during exercise when they come from a variety of sources. Look for an even ratio of dextrose, fructose, and maltodextrin. Sorry Gatorade, you fall short on this one.
Not too sweet! A drink with 8% macronutrients by volume is best tolerated by most people. Higher concentrations tend to slow down digestion and can lead to cramping and discomfort. To calculate, simply add up the grams of carbs and proteins (there shouldn’t be any fat) and then divide the total by the mL of fluid. For example, 500mL of Gatorade has 33g of carbs (33/500 =0.06 x 100% = 6%). Of course, you can always water it down if you need to. Make sure you drink water with your gels and chomps to dilute the nutrient content.
With Amino Acids > without amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins in our bodies. A recent study compared female cyclists taking 275mL of straight carbohydrate drink (6g/100mL) to those taking the same amount of carb + amino acid drink (3g of carb + 1.2g amino acids/100mL) every 20 minutes during exhaustive cycling. For 3 hours they did interval training, followed by a ride to exhaustion. In the end, the women taking the carb + amino acid combo outlasted the carb-only group by 15.2% (47.94 minutes vs 42.36 minutes) (McCleave et al., 2011). Again, Gatorade doesn’t have any amino acids so it may not be your best option.
Replace your electrolytes. Sodium and potassium are ridiculously important when it comes to maintaining water balance in your body and controlling muscle contractions. A lot of sodium and potassium leaves your body when you sweat so make sure you choose a fuel includes these minerals. This is exaggerated in hot conditions, shown by Consolazio and friends (1963) who put a bunch of guys outside in 100 degree weather for 16 days and collected their sweat to measure the mineral content. On average, the men lost 84mg (+/- 72.1) of potassium/hour and 337mg (+/- 183.0) of sodium/hour and they weren’t even exercising! Take home message: use a supplement with sodium and potassium during your long exercise sessions.
Caffeine. Pros = increased calcium release from your muscles helps increase force output, can make you feel less tired, more alert, and some people really like the taste. Cons = may make you have to use the bathroom more often, may cause GI distress in some people.
Stay hydrated! Even if you prefer chomps and goos to a sports drink, make sure that you are drinking enough water during your workout. The standard recommendation is 1 cup of fluid for every 15min of exercise, however you may need to take smaller sips every few minutes, depending on how your body tolerates it. Avoid drinking so much that you get that sloshing feeling in your tummy or get a stitch.
Despite its popularity, Gatorade & Powerade may not be your best option for performance fuel. For nutrition during your workouts I recommend trying products from GUenergy, Hornet Juice, Hammer Nutrition, or another product which includes a variety of carb sources, amino acids, and electrolytes. Altern
atively, you can stock up on raw ingredients and mix your own cocktail, however I think it will probably take a lot of trial and error until you find something that works and is palatable. Not to mention that other people have already done this for you…take advantage of their efforts and enjoy a better performance without messing up your kitchen!