Given the fact that we want to stay hydrated and to perform well while we’re training and while we’re racing, it’s good to consider what drink mix options there are and to see if there’s one or two that may meet our needs the best.
So, this article is meant to address the question: What’s the best drink mix for me?
If we’re trying to figure out what the best drink mix is going to be for us, then we probably have to think for a second about what we’re trying to get out of our mix and what it’s supposed to help us with. The obvious answer to this question is to say that we need to stay hydrated or at least delay becoming dehydrated, and preserve proper nervous system function by preventing hyponatremia. In order to do this, we will want to have some water and sodium, which are clearly two things that all drink mixes provide. We generally also want a source of carbohydrates to fuel our efforts, because they provide an easy to burn fuel source for our more intense efforts. Except for electrolyte-only products like Nuun and Gu Hydration Tabs, all drink mixes will provide some amount of carbohydrate that we usually will want while training or racing. This may not always be the case and there are reasons for sometimes not taking in a lot of calories during your training, but it’s definitely a separate topic that I hope to address in the future. But, for those times when we want carbs, different drink mixes will have different types and different amounts of carbohydrate, and this is going to be the big differentiating factor that may inspire you to choose one drink mix over another.
We all have a functionally unlimited amount of fat stored in our bodies that can be used as fuel, but it takes more oxygen to burn fat as fuel and our fast-twitch muscle fibers need carbohydrate to perform. As we get closer to our anaerobic threshold our rate of fat burning drops of quickly to very low levels and at which point we essentially only use carbs for fuel. So any intense efforts have to be fueled by muscle glycogen that we had going into our workout or blood glucose. We can replenish blood glucose while we train up to a few hundred calories worth per hour, and this can reduce the rate at which we deplete our glycogen stores, but we can’t replace glycogen until we stop training, eat carbs, and rest. So, it’s up to our drink mix or training foods to help supply any carbohydrate that we will use for our efforts, because we can’t really make changes anywhere else once we start exercising.
So, how much sodium and carbohydrate do different drink mixes have? And, what kinds of carbohydrate do they have? Well, here’s a table summarizing several of the options available today:
So, if you look at the range of different drink mixes, it’s easy to see that there is a huge range of how many calories you can get per bottle. And, there’s a decent range of how much sodium there is per bottle. But, even though electrolyte and calorie content do vary from product to product, you clearly have the choice to mix your bottles with more or less of the product that you’re using, so in principle you could mix all of them to the same electrolyte or calorie density. Clearly in some cases you wouldn’t want to do this because they would have way too much of one thing or another, but this makes it clear that the only thing we need to be concerned about is the ratio of electrolytes and carbs and the type of carbs present.
Some drinks also have nontrivial amounts of calcium and magnesium, some have added amino acids, and some have added vitamins, like vitamin C. Amino acids can be helpful for reducing protein breakdown during exercise and may improve performance, especially in the long run over many days and weeks of training. This can be a good thing, and they are usually found in low enough concentrations that they generally shouldn’t have a negative impact on your digestion. But, they aren’t essential to good performance, so I’m not sure I would worry to much about that until you have figured out what the right balance of fluid, electrolyte, sugars, and starches work well for you. Likewise, vitamin content of your drink mix will almost certainly not improve performance, but actually vitamin C and other supplemental antioxidants are likely to decrease performance by reducing oxidative stress on your body. Your body has its own antioxidant defenses and they are made stronger through aerobic exercise over time. But, one of the things that helps make us fitter is the adaptation that occurs after sustaining some level of oxidative stress, so clearing that away with supplemental anti-oxidants will not help with this process. Given the options available, I would always choose the option that has less vitamin C, or other antioxidants.
Now, the biggest thing that will affect our short term performance and comfort while we’re training or racing will be the electrolyte and carbohydrate content of our drinks. Both the amount and type of carbohydrate can influence how well we tolerate our drink mixes, so it’s a good idea to try out different mixes and see how well you enjoy the taste and how well you can tolerate medium to high quantities of fluids when you’re drinking sugars versus starches like maltodextrin. And, once you figure out what kinds of carbs work well for you, you might be set, but you might want to try mixing them with a little more or less mix per bottle to see what mix density works best for you.
If you can find a mix that you enjoy and tolerate well, then you should be pretty set. Ideally you will also need to take into account how many calories are in your mix and how much you will be drinking, and then you can consider how much additional solid food, gels, or chews you will want to take in for racing or harder workouts. Overall, your whole intake of foods and fluids needs to work well for you, so you should try things out in training so that you can make sure that you’re getting the most out of your body. And, as with anything in training, it’s good to practice the things that you will be doing in racing or during any goal events. Whether you’re doing a century ride or a stage race, the nutrition and hydration strategy that you use will have a big impact on how you feel and how you perform, so practice your strategies in training and adjust them as needed before your events so that you’re never trying something for the first time when it matters to you most. This goes for the food and drink items that you’re going to consume, as well as the quantities. If you want to take in 300 calories per hour during a really tough race or event, then you should try that out in training at least a couple of times to be sure that it will work for you.
Also, there is clearly a little bit of a challenge for athletes who are training for hours at a time. If you’re out on your bike for 3 or 4 or 5 hours, then you can start your ride with some drink mix that you made at home, but after that you will only have water to refill your bottles. So, the two obvious choices are to either take a small bag or tube of drink mix or to take electrolyte only tablets like Nuun or Gu Hydration tabs. It’s good to take this into account, because tablets are much easier to work with, but then you won’t be taking in any calories in your drinks after the first couple of hours and you may want to increase your consumption of solid food in order to compensate. During races, this may be less of an issue if you can get new bottles with drink mix, but you can’t always, so it’s good to have some foods that have a little salt in them in order to be prepared if you can only get water later in your race or event. Or, for runners doing half or full marathons, research what your event will have available and be sure to train some with that drink mix so that you know how well it will work for you and how much you can take. Either way, experimenting while you are training is going to be a major key to your success. If you’re lucky, you may be able to tolerate most any food or mix, but many people cannot, and sometimes you may be able to perform better if you consume fewer calories in order to maintain a comfortable stomach than if you eat or drink too much of something that makes your stomach feel lousy. So, just try things out in training and get your stomach used to whatever products you choose to use or will be using in your event.
If you do this and try out a few products and see how everything works together for you, then you should be well on your way to establishing a set of optimized habits that will help you get the most out of your training and racing.