The Best Sports Drinks for Runners

The Best Sports Drinks for Runners

Sports drinks offer an easy approach for consuming needed calories, sodium, and fluids when running. However, sports drinks can get a poorly-deserved reputation and many runners miss out on their benefits. It’s time to think beyond Gatorade; the sports drink market has grown with numerous options over the past few years. New formulations are designed for optimal absorption with minimal GI upset. Sports drinks are beneficial for runners! This article explores when to use sports drinks and how to pick from the best sports drinks on the market.

What are the Benefits of Using Sports Drinks During Runs?

Sports drinks are easy to consume while running. You do not have to chew, which can be difficult for some runners at higher levels of exertion. Sports drinks can simplify nutrition since you can rely on one product for hydration and carbohydrates.  Sports drinks also make it easier to hit the high carbohydrate goals that you will often need to avoid hitting the wall in a marathon.

The sodium in sports drinks serves multiple purposes. Plain water does not replenish sodium. Too much ingestion of fluid without sodium can lead to hyponatremia, in which the blood is diluted and contains too low a concentration of sodium. Sodium also aids in glucose transport and thirst signals. 

When Should I Use Sports Drinks?

You may hear warnings about the sugars in sports drinks. Yes, sports drinks contain too high sugar and calorie profiles for frequent daily consumption in sedentary populations. However, nutritional needs differ in athletes. Your body responds differently to sugar intake before, during, and after exercise. Exercise increases insulin sensitivity, meaning that your muscles uptake more sugar (glucose) during and after exercise. During exercise, your muscles use glucose for energy production via either slow or fast glycolysis. After exercise, your muscles can convert glucose into glycogen (a form of storage for use during future runs). 

If you are doing a short 30-min run, you likely do not need a sports drink. In many other scenarios, long-distance runners will benefit from drinking a sports beverage. 

During Long Runs and Races

You need to replace fluids, electrolytes, and carbohydrates during exercise. Even if you are using gels, you will still want a sports drink for fluids and electrolytes. The extra carbohydrates often help, as many runners struggle to reach the recommended levels of carbohydrate intake during long runs.

General recommendations are for 14-27 oz (400-800mL) of fluid per hour of running. You may need to adjust within that range (or beyond) based on individual sweat rate, intensity, and temperature. You can take just sports drinks or a combination of sports drinks and plain water. 

Before a Morning Run

Fasted running is generally not recommended (here’s why). Any possible cellular signaling from running on low glycogen stores does not confer superior adaptations. The prolonged window of low energy availability can diminish performance (your runs may feel really crappy), lead to more muscle breakdown, and disrupt the endocrine system. 

However, poor appetite and concern about gastrointestinal upset can prevent many runners from eating before morning runs. Sports drinks offer a solution for what to eat before an early morning run. They are easy to drink and come with low risk of GI upset. Plus, having 12-16 oz of your sports drink of choice before a run helps you meet your hydration needs. (If you take this approach, ensure your sports drink has adequate calories.) 

When Carb Loading

Carbohydrate loading protocols are highly effective for any race longer than 90 minutes. (Here’s how to carb load properly!) However, carbohydrate recommendations can be difficult for many runners to hit. Liquid calories such as juices and sports drinks help many runners reach their carbohydrate goals without feeling overly full. The sodium in sports drinks can also aid in ensuring euhydration before the race. Sip on a sports drink throughout the day during your carb load.

During Midweek Workouts

High-intensity efforts have higher carbohydrate and fluid needs. Filling a handheld or stashing a bottle of sports drink for your weekly workout can be a small change that yields large benefits. Supporting the nutritional needs of your interval session or tempo run can enhance performance. Better performance often supports better adaptations in training. 

Quick Replenishment after Long Runs

Your insulin response after exercise is primed to store carbohydrates as glycogen in the muscles. Eating shortly after a long run is also beneficial for preventing fatigue after runs. While many runners understand the importance of eating after a long run, appetite can be suppressed after long runs due to various mechanisms. Sports drinks allow you to replenish fluids, sodium, and carbohydrates after a long run, while being easy to ingest if appetite is poor. One practical tip: if you take this approach, it may more palatable to drink a different sports drink than you had during your long run. 

Swishing during Shorter Races (<75 min)

Sports drinks can help during shorter races! If you go take a sports drink during a shorter race, take time to swish it around your mouth. Taste receptors in the mouth send electrical signals to the brain that signal carbohydrates are coming; that signal alone can provide a performance boost. 

What Do the Best Sports Drinks Contain?

Electrolytes

Electrolytes (particularly sodium) are not just for salty sweaters. Sodium has numerous benefits. It interacts with renal hormones to promote fluid balance. It functions as a co-transporter for glucose, which aids in energy production. Sodium, along with other electrolytes, also encourages the thirst mechanism which helps runners hydrate adequately during exercise. The other electrolytes (calcium, magnesium, and potassium) contribute to nerve transmission and muscle contraction. 

Carbohydrates

While individual tolerances may dictate various concentrations, most sports drinks for runners should contain some carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the primary substrate (fuel source) for running. Additionally, artificial sweeteners often used in zero-carb and low-carb sports drinks may cause gastrointestinal irritation for some athletes. 

As you will see in the nutritional comparison below, the carbohydrate sources do vary. If you find that a sports drink does not sit well with you, check the ingredients first. Then, look for a sports drink with different ingredients. For example, if you do not tolerate maltodextrin well, you may want a sports drink with cane sugar and dextrose instead.

BCAAs  

Mixed evidence indicates that branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) may be beneficial for ultra-distance events. The central fatigue hypothesis posits that BCAAs reduce the transportation of tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier; this reduced uptake of tryptophan reduces serotonin production in the brain, which in turn reduces central fatigue. However, this theory is debated; some indicate that BCAAs do reduce central fatigue, while others argue that tryptophan does not increase serotonin production. The research does support the role of BCAA ingestion during ultra-distance events in reducing muscle soreness. The benefits of BCAA supplementation may be particularly beneficial in multi-day events, as demonstrated in a 2016 study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 

In short, BCAAs are not an essential ingredient in a sports drink for events in the marathon distance and shorter. For ultra-distance and multi-stage races, it may be worth experimenting with sports drinks containing BCAAs.

Caffeine

Caffeine can reduce fatigue during runs, due to its inhibition of adenosine binding. Additionally, caffeine mobilizes calcium ions and may help with muscle contraction during prolonged exercise. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends 3-6 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. For a 70-kg (154 lb) runner, the recommended dosage equates to 210-420 grams of caffeine. Most sports drinks have lower levels of caffeine per serving so you can take multiple servings over the course of an activity. (Often assuming one serving per hour.) Be mindful of any caffeinated gels you are taking along with the sports drinks. 

However, caffeine responses are highly individual. Always test caffeinated sports drinks in training and observe for any adverse effects such as anxiety, gastrointestinal upset, or palpitations. 

How Do I Carry My Sports Drink?

Most sports drinks are mixed from a powder into water, rather than sold mixed. You will want to mix it in a reusable bottle. Hydration vests, handheld bottles, and waist packs all allow you to carry fluids easily and comfortably. 

The Best Sports Drinks: 

The best sports drink for you is the one that you will drink. It should be palatable and tolerable to your gastrointestinal system. The best sports drink for you should also meet your needs. Do you want all your nutrition in liquid form or do you plan on supplementing with running gels or chews? 

All nutritional information is per serving, which is typically mixed with 12-16 oz of water. On long runs, you will most likely consume multiple servings (roughly a serving per hour). 

Skratch Labs Sport Hydration: Best for supplementing with gels
  • 20 grams carbohydrate (cane sugar and dextrose)
  • 80 kcal
  • 370 mg sodium
  • Non-caffeinated and caffeinated flavors (50 mg)
Nuun Endurance: Best for supplementing with gels
  • 16 grams carbohydrate (cane sugar and dextrose) 
  • 65 kcal
  • 380 mg sodium
  • Non-caffeinated and caffeinated (25 mg)
Maurten 180/360: Can be used on own (360)  or with gels (180)
  • 40 or 80 gram carbohydrate (maltodextrin, fructose, pectin)
  • 180 or 360 kcal
  • 400 mg sodium
  • Non-caffeinated and caffeinated (100 mg)
Gu Roctane: Can be used on own or with gels
  • 60 gram carbohydrate (maltodextrin and fructose)
  • 240 kcal
  • 320 mg sodium
  • 1900 mg of amino acids (taurine, beta-alanine, and BCAAs)
  • Non-caffeinated and caffeinated (35 mg)
Skratch Labs Superfuel: best used on own (concentration can be scaled)
  • 100 gram carbohydrate (cluster dextrin and fructose)
  • 400 kcal
  • 400 mg sodium 
  • Non-caffeinated
Gatorade Endurance: best used with gels
  • 22 gram carbohydrate (sugar, maltodextrin, and fructose)
  • 90 kcal
  • 310 mg sodium
  • Non-caffeinated
References:

Cheng, I. S., Wang, Y. W., Chen, I. F., Hsu, G. S., Hsueh, C. F., & Chang, C. K. (2016). The Supplementation of Branched-Chain Amino Acids, Arginine, and Citrulline Improves Endurance Exercise Performance in Two Consecutive Days. Journal of sports science & medicine, 15(3), 509–515.

Jeukendrup A. (2014). A step towards personalized sports nutrition: carbohydrate intake during exercise. Sports Medicine, 44 S( 1), S25–S33. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0148-z

Jeukendrup, A. & Gleeson, M. (2016). Sport nutrition (3rd ed.). Human Kinetics. 
Tiller, N. B., Roberts, J. D., Beasley, L., Chapman, S., Pinto, J. M., Smith, L., Wiffin, M., Russell, M., Sparks, S. A., Duckworth, L., O’Hara, J., Sutton, L., Antonio, J., Willoughby, D. S., Tarpey, M. D., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Ormsbee, M. J., Astorino, T. A., Kreider, R. B., McGinnis, G. R., … Bannock, L. (2019). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: nutritional considerations for single-stage ultra-marathon training and racing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 16(1), 50. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-019-0312-9

Tiller, N. B., Roberts, J. D., Beasley, L., Chapman, S., Pinto, J. M., Smith, L., Wiffin, M., Russell, M., Sparks, S. A., Duckworth, L., O’Hara, J., Sutton, L., Antonio, J., Willoughby, D. S., Tarpey, M. D., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Ormsbee, M. J., Astorino, T. A., Kreider, R. B., McGinnis, G. R., … Bannock, L. (2019). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: nutritional considerations for single-stage ultra-marathon training and racing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 16(1), 50. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-019-0312-9

Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics116(3), 501–528. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.006

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