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Fueling a Race : Are Sports Drinks Good for Runners?

When many runners hear the term “sports drinks,” the first thing that comes to mind is “too much sugar,” and since most of them don’t want to pack more calories, they have the impression that the drinks aren’t good for them.

Are sports drinks good for runners? Yes, they are. Most of the sports drinks in the market are what scientists call isotonic. This means that they contain a carbohydrate solution that is 6-8% concentration.

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According to scientists, these drinks are in the middle of the spectrum when it comes to the absorption rate. This means that they won’t be absorbed as fast as water, but their absorption rate is higher than that of juices and other drinks with higher carbohydrate and sugar content.

Read more about isotonic sports drinks here.

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When running, you lose a lot of fluids and sodium through sweating. The best way to rehydrate is by taking water. Unfortunately, when you consume large amounts of water, you put yourself at risk of developing hyponatremia.

Due to the excess water consumption and loss of sodium, water gets into your brain and causes a myriad of conditions, such as dizziness, headaches, and even sometimes coma and death.

Sports drinks can help you (a runner) avoid hyponatremia. The drinks rehydrate the body properly by supplying the necessary electrolytes that come in handy in maintaining a balance.

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You don’t need to take a sports drink when running for less than an hour. In such a scenario, water is enough to meet your fuel needs.

However, it’s wise to use a sports drink during long training races such as marathons and half marathons. One of the best drinks to use in such a scenario is a carbohydrate-electrolyte-filled sports drink.

You should drink a little of it before you start the run, then at least 20-40 ounces every hour.

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Be cautious when picking sports drinks.

As much as sports drinks are safe to drink when running, it doesn’t mean that you should pick any you come across—you need to be cautious and pick the right one. Some of the things to consider when buying a sports drink include:

Electrolytes

You need electrolytes for fluid balance, nutrient utilization, and muscle contraction when running. Some electrolytes you need in your body include: calcium, sodium, potassium, magnesium, and chloride.

When buying a sports drink as a runner, focus on those with plenty of sodium. The reason for this is that this is the largest electrolyte you lose when you sweat.

Calcium plays a vital role in sugar transport in the small intestines, maintains fluid balance, and prevents bloating, cramping, and bonking.

To stay safe, go for a sports drink that will give you between 250 and 500mg of sodium per hour. If you sweat a lot, go for drinks that give you more calcium.

Carbohydrates

You will be spending energy as you are running, and to avoid hitting a wall, go for a sports drink that will provide you with 40-90 g of carbohydrates per hour.

As much as you want energy to maintain your run, avoid taking too many carbohydrates at once, as you risk cramping and bloating. This calls for you to avoid sports drinks with too much carbohydrate content.

Sugar alcohols

They are a common additive in low to no-calorie sports drinks. Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that taste as sweet as traditional sugar but have a unique chemical structure.

These sugars aren’t fully absorbed or digested in the gastrointestinal system and often cause gas, bloating, diarrhea, and even stomach cramping.

If you can handle sugar alcohol in your body, you can buy sports drinks with sugar alcohol, but for most people, it’s wise to stay away from sports drinks that contain these sugars.

Some alcohol sugars you should look out for include: Sorbitol, Malitol, Xylitol, and Erythritol.

Caffeine

Caffeine is known to provide an energy boost, but at the same time, it’s a gastrointestinal stimulant, and it can cause diarrhea, gas, stomach cramping, and bloating.

Caffeine can be helpful to some runners, but harmful to others.

Even if you love taking it, never take over 3-6g/kg body weight, as it can lead to complications.

Avoid sports drinks with caffeine in them to stay on the safe side.

Herbs and vitamins

If you have been researching sports drinks, you must have heard some saying they are organic. These drinks contain herbs and vitamins that have little to no benefits to you as a runner.

Some harm you as they cause gastrointestinal, brain, and heart complications.

To avoid issues when running, stay away from sports drinks containing herbs. Some of the ingredients you should look out for include: Guarana, Vitamin C, Ginseng, Taurine, B vitamins, and Beta-Alanine.

Allergens

The presence of allergens in your drinks is important, especially if you suffer from allergies. Avoid sports drinks containing gluten, eggs, soy, nuts, and dairy ingredients.

Best practices when using sports drinks as a runner.

Runners taking as little as 25grams/hour of carbohydrates have been shown to have improved endurance performance. Further laboratory studies have shown that by consuming 60-75 grams of carbohydrates per hour, you stand to gain even more benefits from sports drinks.

This means that to get the most from your sports drinks of choice, aim to take more carbohydrate-rich drinks such as glucose-fructose drinks. This is more important when you are engaging in intense competitions.

To improve time to-fatigue endurance and initiate improved post-exercise recovery, consume carbohydrate sports drinks containing small amounts of protein (15-20% of the total calories)

Regardless of the sports drink you are consuming, drink small doses, especially in the first 10-15 minutes of the exercise. The purpose of doing this is to maximize your intake levels.

To maximize post-endurance exercise recovery, drink a post-exercise carbohydrate-protein mixture with a higher concentration of protein (25-35% of total calories).

A classic combination is a 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 recovery drink.

If you are engaged in longer and more frequent training sessions, consider drinking higher carbohydrate recovery drinks such as 3:1.

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