Sports Science: What's in That Drink?
Key components of a performance / recovery drink – and what many are missing.
By Robert Silverman, DC, MS, CCN, CSCS
"Performance is about fuel. Longevity is all about recovery." — Jack LaLanne
Athletes frequently ask me what the best liquid is to drink during
exercise – water or a sports drink? Water provides the necessary
hydration, but unfortunately, it lacks the key nutrients to aid in
performance and recovery. If water is not sufficient, what, then, is the
best sports drink on the market?
An extensive review of various literature shows that the "best"
sports drink should contain carbohydrates, electrolytes and numerous
other ingredients. Sports drinks should not only fuel activity, but also
aid in recovery.1-3 Let's review the key components of an efficient sports drink and how some of the popular brands stack up.
Carbs are a key component for athletic performance, recovery and health.4 I recommend 30-60 grams of carbs per hour for an athletic endeavor.5-6 This carbohydrate amount will prevent immunosuppression, which naturally occurs during intensive exercise.7 In addition, this amount enables athletes to maintain blood glucose levels,
and optimize glucose uptake and oxidation in performance. Finally,
replacing fluids with a carbohydrate / electrolyte beverage prior to
exercise assists in meeting fluid / carbohydrate needs. It also reduces
dehydration, a critical concern for athletic performance.8-9
Sports drinks should contain electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and chloride.10-11
Magnesium, a key electrolyte, plays a pivotal role in 300 enzymatic
reactions. Bisglycinate has been shown to be the best form of magnesium
because it is chelated (bonded) to an amino acid (glycine). Magnesium in
the form of bisglycinate ensures increased intestinal absorption and
prevents diarrhea. However, most companies do not formulate magnesium in
this bisglycinate form, increasing the risk of intestinal upset.12-16
- Malic acid is a critical addition to a sports drink formulation. It reduces muscle tenderness and assists with soft-tissue recovery.17 Malic acid coupled with magnesium bisglycinate stimulates the aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways.18
- Taurine is an amino acid that helps regulate the level of
water and mineral salts in the blood by keeping potassium and magnesium
inside the cell.19 At the same time, taurine prevents
excessive sodium from entering the cell. L-taurine's properties have
been validated in numerous studies.
- L-carnosine, also an amino acid, helps fight muscle fatigue in fast-twitch fibers and aids in athletic performance.20
- In addition, a full range of complex B vitamins for energy production should be included in the drink as well.
Maximum Carb Efficiency
Research has shown that a combination of diverse sugars maximizes
carbohydrate absorption during exercise. Since glucose and fructose are
absorbed at different rates, both glucose and fructose polymers should
be present to optimize multiple pathways of absorption during exercise.
Most commercial brands use only glucose polymers.
Literature reveals that a glucose-fructose combination, versus water
or glucose alone, is the best choice for carbohydrates in a sports
drink. The glucose-fructose combination results in improved power
performance, running time, time to fatigue during cycling, and a
perceived higher level of exertion during both strength and endurance
What Most of the Popular Sports Drinks Are Missing
Of the more popular brands, Powerade contains high-fructose corn
syrup as a source of carbohydrates; it lacks electrolytes and any
recovery ingredients. Gatorade has no vitamins and contains only sodium
and potassium. Both these brands rely solely on glucose as a
carbohydrate source and lack fructose. Another popular brand, Vitamin
Water, has no sodium or chloride, and contains only trace amounts of
Coconut water has very high levels of potassium without any sodium
content, and low levels of magnesium. Analysis of coconut water reveals
that it primarily contains sucrose as a main carbohydrate source, rather
than glucose and fructose in an appropriate ratio of 3:1.28
Thus, in my professional opinion, none of these aforementioned
commercial brands contains a proper formulation to aid in athletic
performance. Indeed, they hinder athletic performance.
The best sports drink should contain all four electrolytes as
ingredients and have the proper 3:1 ratio of glucose to fructose. In
addition, it should include magnesium in the bisglycinate form, as well
as malic acid, taurine, L-carnosine and complex B vitamins to aid in athletic recovery. Remember to choose wisely and drink up.
- McArdle WD. Sports and Exercise Nutrition, 2nd Edition. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2004: p. 241-45.
- Burke L, Deakin V. Clinic Sports Nutrition. 3rd Edition. McGraw-Hill Companies, 2006: p. 400-01.
- Burke L. Practical Sports Nutrition: Human Kinetics, 2007: p. 53-54.
- American College of Sports Medicine position stand: nutrition and athletic performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2009;41:709-731.
- Wildman R, Kerksick C, Campbell B. Carbohydrates, physical training and sport performance. Strength & Conditioning J, Feb 2010;32:21-29.
- Rossi SJ, et al. Nutritional strategies and immune function. Strength & Conditioning J, Dec 2010;32(6):65-70.
- Keller C, Keller P, et al. IL-6 gene expression in human adipose tissue in response to exercise effect of carb ingestion. J Physiol, Aug 1, 2003;550(Pt3):927-31.
- Wildman R, et al. Op cit.
- Wong SH, et al. Effect of glycemic index meals on recovery and subsequent endurance capacity. Int J Sports Med, 2009;30:898-905.
- Estevez J, Baquero E, Mora-Rodriguez R. Anaerobic performance when
rehydrating with water or commercially available sports drinks during
prolonged exercise in the heat. Applied Physiol, Nutr & Metabol, 2008;33(2):290-98.
- "Rehydration Drinks." WebMD.com, April 28, 2008.
- Med-Exerc Nutr Health, 1995;4:230-33.
- Terblanche S, et al. Failure of magnesium supplementation to
influence marathon running performance or recovery in magnesium-replete
subjects. Int J Sports Nutr, Jun 1992;2(2):154-64.
- Newhouse IJ, Finstad EW. The effects of magnesium supplementation on exercise performance. Clin J Sports Med, July 2000;10(3):195-200.
- Magnesium: Health Professional Fact Sheet. National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements.
- Magnesium. Natural-Health-Information-Centre.com
- Abraham GE, Flechas JD. Management of fibromyalgia: rationale for the use of magnesium and malic acid. J Nutr Med, 1992:3:49-59.
- Myhill S. "Magnesium – Treating a Deficiency." DrMyhill.co.uk.
- Bhutani S, et al. Effect of exercising while fasting on eating behaviors and food intake. J International Society Sports Nutr, 2013;10:51.
- Chung W, et al. Doubling of muscle carnosine concentration does not improve laboratory 1-hr cycling time-trial performance. Int J Sports Nutr & Exercise Metabol, 2014;24:315-24.
- Jeukendrup A. A step towards personalized sports nutrition: carbohydrate intake during exercise. Sports Med, 2014;1(supp):S25-S33.
- Rollo I, Williams C Influence of ingesting a
carbohydrate-electrolyte solution before and during a 1-hr running
performance test. Int J Sports Nutr & Exercise Metabol, 2009;19(6):645-58.
- Hulston CJ, et al. Exogenous CHO oxidation with glucose plus fructose intake during exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2009;41:357-363.
- Currell K, Jeukendrup AE. Superior endurance performance with ingestion of multiple transportable carbohydrates. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2008;40:275-281.
- Da Silva-Grigoletto ME, et al. Fructose addition to a glucose
supplement modifies perceived exertion during strength and endurance
exercise. J Strength & Conditioning Res, Dec 2010;24(12):3334-42.
- Kerksick C, Roberts M. Supplements for endurance athletes. Strength & Conditioning J, Feb 2010;32(1):55-64.
- Int J Sports Nutr Exerc Metabol, 2006;16:420-29.
- Jeukendrup A, Op cit.
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