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What to look for in a sports drink for cycling

  • By Kathleen Farrell, Boulder Center for Sports Medicine
  • Published Oct. 11, 2010
  • Updated Sep. 13, 2011 at 1:43 PM EDT
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Dear Training Center,
I was just wondering what some of the more popular drinks are out there for cyclists. I’m basically looking for something while I’m riding, not an after-ride/recovery type drink. I know that Gatorade and Powerade are basically sugar water but the only other brand I know is CytoMax. I’m sure that there are others out there and probably ones that work better. Any info would be a big help. Thanks!
-Sarah

Sarah,

It’s important to keep in mind that the sport drink you choose will depend on your training goals and personal dietary needs and preferences, which makes it difficult to say what sport drink will work best for you. Below is some background information on what to look for in a sport drink.

Sport drinks are primarily a mixture of water, carbohydrates, and electrolytes; however, some sport drinks may have protein and fat added too.

Type of Carbohydrate (CHO):
A majority of commercial sport drinks supply a mix of sugars and they typically have about 4-9 percent solution or about 13-19 grams of carbohydrates per 8 fluid ounces. Most sport drinks are generally a blend of CHO sources – sucrose, glucose, fructose and maltodextrin. Research has suggested a blend of CHOs is best. For example glucose and sucrose rather than a one-CHO source may improve the amount of CHO utilized by the muscles for fuel. Also, the rate of absorption is key when it comes to choosing the type of CHO in your sport drink. Better absorption means more CHOs to your muscles.

Carbohydrates Content:
The target CHOs needed per hour is about 30-60 or 120 – 240 calories per hour. Some athletes can tolerate up to 100 grams per hour, or 400 calories.

Beverages with higher concentration of sugar can be problematic. Sugar is very hygroscopic (readily taking up water) thus may cause gastrointestinal distress, nausea and diarrhea. Fruit juices and soda are typically not tolerated well because they are too concentrated, high in CHOs. Also, carbonation is not favorable in sports drink.

Water is generally the preferred beverage if you are cycling less than 60 minutes; however, if cycling longer than 60 minutes you should be taking in some form of CHOs, solids (food – banana, oranges, sport bars, etc.) or fluids (sports drinks, diluted fruit juice, etc.). You should try to eat or drink every 15-20 minutes, which is crucial in helping you maintain your blood sugar and help spare your storage form of sugar, muscle glycogen. Also, waiting too long and eating or drinking too much may cause havoc with your stomach.

Electrolytes:
Another key ingredient to sports drinks is electrolytes, particularly sodium and potassium. Electrolytes maintain water balance (sweat loss and help regulate body temperature), maintain blood acidity – pH, and prevent muscle cramps. So, keeping well hydrated, meeting your fuel needs with ample amount of CHOs and maintaining your electrolytes can have a significant impact on your cycling performance during your training bouts and races.

Protein (PRO):
The addition of protein can aid in the facilitation of CHOs into the muscles, thus conserving muscle glycogen and improving endurance. Generally, 4 CHOs to 1 PRO is the ratio you will see in most commercial sports drinks.

Fats:
Those cyclists competing in ultra-distance races sometimes will choose a sport drink with fat added to the mix. Like protein, fat can spare CHOs in exercise that of a longer duration and lower intensity.

Kathleen Farrell is a registered dietitian with a Masters Degree in exercise physiology. She is the BCSM sport dietitian.

Boulder Center for Sports Medicine was founded by Andrew Pruitt, EdD, PA-C, in 1998. For the past 12 years BCSM has been providing athletes from around the world with the highest possible level of care. BCSM offers a wide range of services, including Orthopedic Clinics, Physical Therapy, Expert 3D Bike Fitting, Running Gait Analysis, Coaching & Training, Nutrition Services, Performance Testing, and more. For more information, visit www.bch.org/sportsmedicine, or call (303) 544-5700.

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