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What is the Best Sports Hydration and Recovery Drink? - The Choice is Yours
By Rick Morris
Drinking on the run has gotten more complicated lately. In my early days of running there were only a couple of choices. You drank plain water during shorter runs and consumed flat cola when you ran long. There were no high tech hydration choices in those days. It was simpler that way but not nearly as effective.
Science then provided is with the magic of formulated sports drinks. The first one I remember was the lemon lime flavored Gatorade. We were able to improve our endurance and avoid heat problems with that original mix of simple carbohydrates, water and electrolytes. But things were still simple, there was only a few choices of sports beverages.
Today things have become more complex with the hundreds of hydrating choices available. Which sports hydration and recovery drink is best for you? Nearly all of the available choices will keep you hydrated but there are a lot of different formulations out there. The best sports drink for you depends upon the type of run you are doing and how you react to the various formulations.
Each sports drink formulation is designed to meet one or more of the following requirements.
• Keep you hydrated
• Replace the carbohydrates you are burning
• Replenish electrolytes lost through sweating
• Assist with muscle recovery
Some sports hydration drinks perform only one of these tasks while others do all four. The best sports drink for you will change according to the type of workout or run you are doing. If you are just doing a short workout of low to moderate intensity you only need to worry about staying hydrated. A short, intense workout requires both hydration and carbohydrate replacement. If you're doing a longer run you will need hydration, carbohydrate replacement and electrolyte replenishment. You will benefit from muscle recovery formulations after any hard or long workout.
The most basic function of a sports drink is to keep you hydrated. The simplest of all drinks for hydration is plain water. Is water sufficient for hydration? You bet it is - as long as your workout is less than 1 hour in length, your pace is easy to moderate and the temperature is not high. If you're running for more than one hour, are running at a hard pace or it's hot out you should consume a sports drink formulation containing both carbohydrates and electrolytes to replace the carbs you're burning and the sodium lost through sweating.
Carbohydrates provide most of the energy for your running, so you obviously burn a lot of carbs during a long or hard workout that need to be replaced. You will see a number of different types of carbohydrates in sports drinks including the very simple forms - glucose and fructose. Some others will use sucrose, which is a combination of glucose and fructose, or high fructose corn syrup. Recently there have been some new formulations that combine different types of carbohydrates. It has been suggested recently that a mix of carbohydrates types will maximize your absorption of the carbs.
Each of these carbohydrate types are simple carbohydrates. Simple carbs are used more frequently than complex carbs because they are generally absorbed more quickly than complex carbohydrates. Delayed absorption can not only cause performance declines but can also be a cause of gastric upsets in some runners.
Any of these types of carbohydrates will do the trick. You should experiment with the different formulations to determine which works best for you and does not upset your stomach. One thing that is important to watch out for is the concentration of carbohydrates in your sports drink. Recommendations for carbohydrate concentration in sports drinks range from 4 to 10 percent. Anything less than 4 percent won't provide enough carbohydrate replacement and anything over 10 percent may inhibit fluid absorption and cause gastric upsets. To figure the carbohydrate percentage simply divide the amount of carbohydrates per serving (grams) by the serving size (milliliters) and multiply the result by 100. Nearly every popular sports drink will meet that requirement. A simple way to insure you're getting enough carbohydrate replacement is to be sure you are consuming at least 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour. To convert pounds to kilograms multiply by .454. For example if you weighed 150 pounds - 150 x .454 = 68 kilograms. You should be consuming at least 68 grams of carbohydrate per hour.
You lose a good deal of electrolytes (sodium, potassium and chloride) when you sweat. That makes electrolyte replacement a very important part of sports drink formulation when you're running longer than one hour, running at a hard pace or running in high heat conditions. The amount of electrolyte replacement you need will depend upon how hot it is, how hard you are running and how salty your sweat is. According to a study conducted by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute you need a minimum of 450 mg of sodium per hour to maintain plasma volume and slow the decline in plasma sodium concentrations. If you are using a popular, well formulated sports drink you should be consuming between 400 ml and 1.5L of sports drink per hour to meet that requirement. A salty sweater would need even more.
Some of today's sports drinks include protein, usually in a 4 to 1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein. The protein in these drinks have been shown to aid in muscle recovery, muscle conservation and muscle building. Do you need protein in your sports drink? Maybe and maybe not. If you're doing a short run of moderate intensity you aren't placing a lot of stress on your muscles and the addition of protein is probably not needed. On the other hand an intense workout or a long workout of any intensity can cause micro-trauma to your muscles. In that case a recovery drink containing protein may speed up your recovery and help rebuild damaged or broken down muscle fibers. A study done at James Madison University found that post exercise plasma creatine kinase ( a marker of muscle damage) was lower in subjects that consumed a sports recovery drink containing protein. Interestingly this study also found that overall endurance was increased in the protein consuming group. It wasn't clear whether this endurance improvement was due to the protein content or simply the increase in overall calorie intake.
Maybe the best way to go high tech is to go back to the basics. A drink that we loved as a kid may just be one of the best sports drinks you can consume. It meets all of the requirements. It has a lot of carbohydrates, sodium and protein. It's carbohydrate to protein ratio is right at the recommended 4:1 level. One serving of chocolate milk contains about 130 mg of sodium, 400 mg of potassium, 300 mg of calcium and 25 mg of magnesium - much more than most popular sports drinks. And best of all - it tastes great. Does science agree with me? Yep - it does. A recent study from Northumbria University found that chocolate milk improved endurance capacity more than 2 commercially available sports drinks. Another study performed at Indiana University concluded that "chocolate milk is an effective recovery aid".
So which of the many available drinks should you use? Below are the advantages and my recommendations for each of the available types of hydration and sports drinks.
Water - Good for easy to moderate paced runs of less than one hour in mild conditions. Water works well for pure hydration but only for easy to moderate paced runs of less than one hour in mild temperatures
Carbohydrate/Electrolyte Hydration Formulation - Best for hard workouts of any length or any workout lasting one hour or longer. Also a good choice for any workout in high heat conditions The carbohydrate/electrolyte formulation is necessary to replace lost carbohydrates and electrolytes.
Carbohydrate/Electrolyte/Protein Recovery Formulation - Great for hard workouts of any length and any workout lasting one hour or longer. The addition of protein was help decrease your recovery time and assist with muscle repair. Some runners dislike the taste of sports drinks containing sodium.
Chocolate Milk - Good for all workouts You can't go wrong with chocolate milk. It tastes great and contains the necessary amounts of sodium and carbohydrates.
Influence of carbohydrate-protein beverage on cycling endurance and indices of muscle disruption, Department of Kinesiology, James Madison University, Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 2008 Aug;18(4);363-78
The role of salt and glucose replacement drinks in the marathon. Gatorade Sports Science Institute, Sports Med 2007;37(4-5):358-60
Improved endurance capacity following chocolate milk consumption compared with 2 commercially available sports drinks, Appl Physiol Nutr Metab, 2009 Feb;34(1):78-82
Chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid, Indiana University, Int J Sports Exerc Metab, 2006 Feb 16(1):78-91
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