Do you have a favorite sports drink?

If you’re one of the fortunate few who have found your match, the one that hydrates you well with fluids and electrolytes, without any stomach issues, and with a taste you look forward to drinking still in the fifth hour of a ride, you should congratulate yourself.

The modern world of sports drinks is daunting.

Just 15-20 years ago, we had about 2 options for sports drinks and both of them ended in -ade.  Now, there are entire grocery store aisles loaded with them.

There are “boutique-style” drinks, customizable drinks, drinks that are low in carbs, high in carbs, caffeine added, sugar-based, starch-based and more.  And, I think it’s great.

With this variety, there’s a better chance of finding one that works well for you.

However, with this variety, there is a lot of confusion among the expert claims, research, and ingredients.

Remember, no matter what drink you choose, your nutrition needs and goals are the same (find a complete explanation of fuel needs during training here).

It’s imperative to find a drink you enjoy, that will help you meet these needs.

Clients often reach out to me because they are having a hard time with fueling, all the while not liking their drink, and choosing a drink that doesn’t provide the nutrients they need.

The 5 Biggest Sports Drink Mistakes

1. Drinking Reactively

All too often, athletes drink after already becoming dehydrated, much too far into their workouts. I recommend drinking proactively.

You should always think of your fuel as what your body will use in the next 15-60 minutes, not just a source of replenishment (until you’re done with your workout).

If you’re already in a hole, and drinking to replenish, you will train at less than your potential.

The better you fuel, the better you can train, the better you will become.

So, begin hydrating/fueling before your ride, and continue with small sips throughout, from the beginning of any ride lasting longer than 60-90 minutes, depending on intensity.

2. Diluting Sports Drinks

I would estimate that 50-60% of athletes dilute their drink substantially.

Why? It’s no surprise really, most sports drinks taste too sweet, and they go down easier when diluted.

The issue? You’re not just diluting the flavor, but needed carbohydrates and electrolytes as well.

Although carbohydrates may reach adequate levels with other sources, I still seldom see athletes consuming enough electrolytes, especially sodium, with diluted drinks.

If you find that you can only get the drink down when diluted, here are my recommendations:

  1. Consider another drink – there are many out there with lighter, less sweet flavors.
  2. Add back in the sodium you’re missing.  Remember, most serious athletes should strive for 400-700 or more milligrams of sodium per hour, and 1/12 of a tsp. (0.5 grams) salt provides 200 milligrams sodium.

3. Assuming Adequate Nutrients

This is similar to my second biggest mistake, but often made by athletes who aren’t diluting their drinks (of course, this mistake is compounding when inadequate drinks are diluted).

Many athletes blindly drink a popular drink, without ever glancing at the label or comparing their intake to their needs.

Even some of the most expensive, seemingly science-based drinks are far too low in sodium.

I recommend a minimum of 100 milligrams of sodium per 8 ounces of sports drink.  Especially as the weather heats up, sodium becomes more and more important before, during, and after training.

Sodium not only re-balances the fluid and electrolyte ratio in the plasma, but also increases fluid absorption in the gut.

There’s no doubt in my mind that too low sodium intake while training is responsible for many, many bonks and poor performances.

4. Forcing a Drink You Don’t Like

Although it sounds crazy, I’ve worked with countless athletes who have choked down their drink, simply because they believe it to be the best, have seen others win with it, or because their buddy swears by it.

The result? If you don’t like your drink, you most likely won’t drink enough.

If you don’t drink enough, you risk dehydration, nausea/vomiting, poor performance, bonking and worse.  Especially when it’s hot, some drinks thicken, and some simply taste bad.

If yours does, free yourself from gagging and find one you like.  Even if it seems that it’s not new enough, trendy enough, or loaded with enough extras, as long as you like the taste, it has adequate sodium and some carbs, and you’re able to drink around 20 ounces or more per hour, it’s a good choice.

You can add in more carbs and nutrients with other foods and fuel sources.

5. Drinking Sports Drinks When Sedentary

Sports drinks are great…when training.

When not training at present or in the immediate future or past (within an hour), they are simply nothing more than sugar and sodium-loaded refined drinks. Similar to a sugar based soda or candy.

There’s really nothing in them your body needs when you’re sitting at your desk, or sitting on your couch.

They have exactly what your body can use when you’re engaging in physical stress and exercise.

Give your body the fuel it needs at the right times: sports drinks, easy-to-digest foods, and fuel when training, and real, whole, minimally processed foods at all other times.

 

Of course, it’s easiest if I just tell you what sports drinks to drink, right?

Well, I believe individual preference plays a big role (see #4).  But, I can certainly lead you down the right path with a few choices to start.

I’m a fan of Carborocket, Skratchlabs, 1st Endurance, Tailwind, and many Infinite blends.

For lower carb options when training less than 60-90 minutes or trying to lose fat (prioritized over performance goals), I like NUUN and Hammer Endurolyte Fizz.

Because I’m a kitchen-mad-scientist, training fuel perfectionist, and mostly frugal, I have also trained and raced on my easy, inexpensive homebrew for many years, as have many clients.  You can find it here with options for full carbs and less carbs; all with adequate sodium.

It’s not hard to form a successful training hydration and fuel plan, and it starts with your drink:

  • Drink proactively aiming for a minimum of 18-24 oz. fluid per hour
  • Choose drinks with adequate sodium and make sure to add back sodium if diluting
  • Choose a drink you like
  • Keep sports drinks in training nutrition

Don’t let the 5 Biggest Sports Drink Mistakes happen to you!



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Kelli Jennings

Kelli Jennings is a Registered Dietitian, sports nutritionist, avid mountain biker, and owner of Apex Nutrition, LLC. Kelli helps athletes optimize performance, stay healthy, reach their weight goals and build strength, endurance and stamina. She teaches clients to eat for reduced inflammation, the best recovery and ongoing fueling needs as they push themselves to new levels. Purchase her book, Fuel Right Race Light or a Custom Apex Plan to get to your next level.

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