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Are Sports Drinks really necessary?
Date: 10 Oct, 2007
Contact: Darren Ellis
Mobile: 021 450079

Walk into any gym, or sit in a café on Tamaki Drive and watch the cyclists and joggers go by, and you will see most of them drinking a strange, brightly coloured liquid.   It has exotic sounding names such as Mountain Blast and Tangy Apple and Berry Ice and Cherry Rain; and it's all being sucked down by the bucketful. 

When asked their reasons for drinking this stuff, the standard reply is 'to give me energy'.  But, energy for what?  I saw you ride past me twice from my seat at Café on Kohi, which means you clocked up about 15 km, and now you're in here after draining two bottles of 'optimized energy and electrolytes', and ordering the 'Big Breakfast' because you deserve it after all that hard work this morning.  Four words for you my friend, 'hard work my a**.' 

 

Now, please don't get me wrong, I am the Supplement Guy.  If you take a look in my kitchen cupboard, you would think I'm sponsored by Leppin (I wish), and understand why I need an extra recycling bin for empty 5 litre plastic containers.  However, I appreciate that there is a time and a place for supplements, otherwise I'm just throwing my money away.  As far as sports drinks go, if I guzzled a litre down every time I got on my bike or went to the gym, I'd soon be downgrading from carbon to a steel frame because it would no longer support my weight.  Not to mention leaving my teeth in a jar beside the bed before I'm 40.

 

Most sports drinks are pure carbohydrate in the form of glucose, with some fructose (fruit sugar) and maltodextrin (complex sugar); the odd product these days may contain a couple grams of amino acids as well, but I'm just going to talk about the carbohydrate and the energy content.  The average 750 ml bottle of sport drink can contain up to 80 g of CHO totaling nearly 1200 kJ.  That equates to enough energy to cycle for about an hour at 20 km/h or half an hour at 30 km/h.  Looking at the math some of you might be thinking that you will need THREE bottles because you ride really really fast. 

 

But you have to factor in the toast/banana/smoothie/weetbix etc you had before the ride, and the café breakfast that often comes after.  If you are just heading off to the office to sit on your butt after that, then perhaps you need to re-think a little.  Moderate exercise stimulates the appetite and so it is easy to end up well into positive energy balance when you are drinking energy containing fluid as well.

 

What about all you ripped athletes who don't have this problem, you still need sports drinks for their performance benefit right?  Sure, as long as it's a workout/race that requires it.  Anything shorter than 70-90 mins and/or of low intensity and you should do fine on a decent breakfast, a small pre-race snack if a late start and a good dinner the night before.

 

So ask yourself what you are training for.  If it's to get fitter and look better, maybe you don't need as much sugar coursing through your veins.  If you're riding for performance, and the ride/race/workout is a tough or long one, then sports drinks are a necessity.

 

If you're not a pro, but still like to perform like one, and you're juggling a sedentary occupation at the same time, then it's up to you to balance your sugar intake with your activity levels.  A general rule of thumb is:

If exercising less than 90 min, or at a moderate or lower intensity, then water should be the drink of choice.  This doesn't mean that pre and post-workout nutrition shouldn't be optimized; your 'during-workout' nutrition however, is likely unnecessary.

 

If the rest of the day is spent in front of the computer, then focus on veggies and fruit, lean protein and healthy fats during this time.  Carbohydrate consumed outside of the exercise period should be high fibre, low GI, whole grain, to ensure stable blood sugar and prevent unnecessary fat storage.  The exception would be when carb loading as it can be difficult to eat enough carbohydrate without adding sugars.  In this case adding a glass of juice, sport drink or milk to meals can help to squeeze in extra carbs during a tapering week.

 

Carbohydrate drinks are a great addition to an athletes' toolbox and will help you push on harder and for longer.  But make sure you only use 'em when you need 'em.  Your bike frame will thank you and so will your dentist.

 

Darren Ellis has a Postgrad Diploma in Exercise Science, specializing in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition and is currently completing an MSc. His passion is nutrition and strength training for improved performance, health and body composition, which he practices with the University of Auckland Exercise Rehab Clinic, Unisports Center for Sports Performance  and as a Sports Nutrition intern with Sport and Exercise Science NZ.  He can be contacted at performancewellbeing@gmail.com

 

See Darren speak at Avanti Plus this month:

 

Mt Eden - 7.30pm, 23rd October

Waitakere - 7.30pm, 18th October

North Shore - 7.30pm, 24th October

 

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