With or without carbohydrates?

21. June 2017

How much should athletes drink?

This depends on the duration, nature and intensity of the physical exertion. External conditions such as heat and humidity are also decisive influencing factors. As a rule of thumb: the basic quantity of 1 to 2 litres per day should be supplemented with 0.4-0.8 litres of drink per hour of activity. One of the problems with running: during intensive energetic activity, the body is not able to consume more than 1 litre of fluid per hour, yet at the same time it can quickly lose up to one and a half to two litres of fluid in sweat due to the exertion and heat. In other words: during long periods of exertion, such as a marathon, a deficit is inevitable. Your performance capability first starts to become impaired when there is a deficit of 2.5% or more of body weight which, in the case of an 80-kg-man, corresponds to a minus of 2 litres or 2 kg. A deficit of around 5% of body weight already leads to serious impairments.

Is a sports drink necessary for one hour of training?

No. For training sessions of up to one hour, water is completely sufficient – at least during the training. When undertaking debilitating and very intensive training units such as interval training, you need to make sure your overall energy consumption is adequate throughout the day. It is therefore advisable to consume protein and carbohydrates immediately after training, either as solid food or fluids (i.e. regeneration shakes, sports drinks).

What does a sports drink need to contain?

Primarily water, salt and carbohydrates at a concentration of around 6-8%, which corresponds to 60-80 grams per litre. There are short-, medium-, or long-chain carbohydrates which, due to their structure, can be digested faster or slower. Every manufacturer has its own sports drink mixture. Most are supplemented with vitamins, artificial flavourings, stimulants (caffeine) or other substances such as L-carnitine, which increases the risk of intolerances (it is therefore essential that you test the drink when training). Most commercial sports drinks contain too little salt for reasons of taste.

When should you drink before, during, and after sport?

In the days before an intensive endeavour, you should already be drinking more than usual. Visual inspection: in the run-up to the competition your urine should be practically colourless. You should also drink 3-5 dl of a carbohydrate-containing drink immediately before doing any sport (around 60-30 minutes before). While you are doing sports, drink 1.5-2 dl every 15 minutes. You don’t necessarily need a sports drink for training sessions of up to 1 hour. When training for 2 hours or longer, the drinks should contain salt. Immediately after the sport, you should consume drinks that are rich in sodium and have carbohydrates that are easy to digest. The following generally applies to sporting activities: drink before you get thirsty.

Can you mix your own sports drink?

Yes, and this is actually quite simple. All you need is water, salt and maltodextrin powder, which is available in specialist shops and pharmacies. Maltodextrin is a neutral-flavoured, pure carbohydrate powder. Tip: mix in syrup for a better taste. 

Sports gel or sports drink?

Sports drinks predominantly provide you with fluid, but just like gels, can be enriched with carbohydrates. The advantage of sports drinks is that they are already prepared in the right mix and very quickly provide the body with the most important carbohydrates and electrolytes, whereas with gels you still need to consume additional fluids. Basically, the following applies: when there is a high level of intensity and/or excessive heat, consuming carbohydrates via a drink during a sporting competition proves to be more convenient than via solid food. The drink passes through the stomach much faster than solid food and directly enters the bloodstream via the small intestine. On the other hand, many athletes prefer gels during long energetic activities, since they don’t need to consume sports drinks by the litre. Bear in mind: tubes or bags sometimes require a certain degree of dexterity and patience. In general, make sure that you also don’t consume too much energy at once, but spread your energy intake over several small portions.

How important is salt?

Salt is generally essential to life and in sports, particularly in the case of long energetic activities (approximately two hours and more), it is of decisive importance when it comes to ensuring optimal performance. The following recommendation applies: drinks should contain around 2-3 grams of salt per litre. 

How else can you ingest salt apart from in drinks?

By means of a bouillon or salt tablets, for example. In many competitions, bouillon is the only salty food on offer at the catering points. Normal table salt can be added to sports drinks or water. Such table salt tablets are available in most pharmacies (20 tablets cost around CHF 3.50). Salt tablets are meanwhile also available in easy dosage capsules from sports drinks suppliers.

Is it also possible to drink too much during a competition?

This happens very rarely, but it can happen if, for example, very slow marathon runners drink 2-3 litres or more per hour. The blood becomes too diluted, thus reducing its sodium concentration, which can lead to a deficit (hyponatraemia). A salt intake therefore also makes sense during long energetic activities.

What sports benefits do cola or Red Bull?

From a sports-specific perspective, both Red Bull and cola are not suitable as pure sports drinks because they have a carbohydrate content of around 12%, which is significantly too high. However, the stimulating effect caused by caffeine and taurine give many athletes the necessary one-off boost for the final sprint at the end of a competition. Important: try this out beforehand to see how well it agrees with you.