Everywhere you look these days it seems that people are sweating out all sorts of different rainbow colours. We all feel like professional athletes, sports drink in hand, ready for our gruelling workouts, but how much of it is science and how much of it is due to the placebo effect? Have you ever suffered from the bloating after downing a bottle of the pixie water? Chances are you aren’t doing it right; sports drinks shouldn’t be considered in the same category as water (liquids), but should be viewed as nutrition. I’m going to play both the person asking the questions and the one answering them as well (becomes I’m unstable like that) to try and clarify the situation.

Isn’t water enough?

I’m glad you asked.

Many different factors are in play when you put your body under strenuous exercise, you sweat (your body’s way of regularising internal temperature), losing nutrients, which in turn have a negative effect on your energy. Water could be enough if your food intake was done properly, for example, if you’ve eaten a properly balanced meal/snack with carbs and proteins 2 hours before your 1 hour long workout, you’ll be fine, however, if you haven’t or if you plan on going longer than an hour, then you might need something extra. Not only to give you more energy, fuel to burn and focus but also to help prevent lactic acid build-up and the ever feared cramps.

What are the main ingredients of these drinks?

Funny, I was just about to talk about that.

When browsing the aisles of the supermarket, what you need to look for is formulation. The most important ingredients are sodium and electrolytes (potassium, chloride, , which help retain fluid and replace lost nutrients; and carbohydrates, which will give your muscles the fuel they need for the extended effort.

So then, all sport drinks are the same?

Don’t generalise, I was getting to that. There are three types of sports drinks that are being sold: Isotonic drinks, are designed to replace the loss of fluids and give a carbohydrate boost of about 5-8% in the solution. Hypotonic solutions usually have a half the amount of carbohydrates and therefore promote water replacement with fewer calories and less energy. The third type is hypertonic drinks, with a higher than 10% carbohydrate rate.

When should I take them?

Hypotonic drinks are great for quick hydration before, during or after an effort; however they are not suitable to sustain a hard session of more than 45 minutes, since they are pretty close to simple water. Isotonic drinks are probably the most popular, and they are great to sustain effort as they come with moderate carbohydrates, but they vary greatly in formula, some of them rely solely on simple carbs (sugar) which can be quite calorie heavy, you can also compare them to flavoured water, other solutions base their formula on complex carbs, and these are the ones I recommend the most, however they have to be bought in speciality stores (Hammer Heed). Hypertonic ones, are quite useless during exercise (unless you are doing ultra-distances, iron mans, marathons) as their carbohydrate structure does not get absorbed quickly, so they are best take after exercise to replenish muscle glycogen stores (Fruit Juices, Sodas, Red Bull..). There are lots of speciality shakes and drinks for recovery (protein shakes) and these are better for you than popping a soda.

Regarding the quantity you need to take in, it all comes down to experience. You can figure out your sweat rate and then you’ll have an indication as to how many fluids you are losing, then, during training test out different products and see how they affect your body.

Can I make my own?

Finally, a good question.

Yes you can and quite easily too. Just remember that while making your own sports drink is feasible you need to do it carefully in a way you gage and calculate what you are putting in so that you know what category of drink you are making. Moreover, certain nutrients and electrolytes are hard to come by and you might miss out on adding them to your home brew.

For an isotonic one: 200ml fruit squash, 800ml water, ½ tsp salt, ½ salt replacement (potassium based), 1 tsp of honey.

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