Haymaker’s Punch, or Switchel might have been the earliest form of the ‘Sports’ drink. It was a homemade mixture of water, vinegar and molasses, popular among American ranchers during the hot, hard working haying season. Sound like something you’d want to drink on a hot day?

Modern sports drinks have changed a lot since then, but in essence they remain the same as a water-based, sugary, salty and tart mixture that works to replenish carbohydrates, electrolytes, and various other nutrients while hydrating our bodies.

The Million Dollar Question:Do sports drinks hydrate us better than just water?

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The answer is that it really does depend on the situation and how long you plan to exercise. First it’s important to understand why sports drinks are designed the way they are. Unlike water, sports drinks typically do not quench thirst. I was surprised to find that out when I started researching this topic, but sports drink flavours purposely make you want to drink more. This of course makes great sense if you want to replenish lost fluids. The inclusion of vital minerals (electrolytes), specifically sodium, which triggers the thirst mechanism, helps further to make sure you’re more likely to drink more than you would if it were simply water. A third important component to sports drinks are the carbohydrates. Most sports drinks contain glucose, which can provide a helpful energy boost before, during or after exercise.

Although most the top brand sports drinks provide these three benefits, the actual solution mixture will vary and have different effects on your body. You might remember some of the following terms from your grade 7 biology text book:

  • Isotonic sports drinks, which have solutions of water to glucose similar to, or in balance with the body – 6%-8%. This will cause the rate of liquid emptied from your stomach into your small intestine to be similar to water. The electrolytes will help to promote greater absorption. The levels of glucose in this mixture could be ideal for medium length rides (Freeriders, Downhillers), with moderate needs for sustained endurance.
  • Hypotonic sports drinks have a higher level of water and lower level of glucose than the normal balance within the body. This will increase the speed of fluid released from the stomach into the small intestine, while the electrolytes will aid in fluid absorption. This type of sports drink with lower than normal glucose might be ideal for shorter distance and causal riders who do not need to added carb boost.
  • Hypertonic sports drinks will have less water and more glucose than the normal balance within the body. This will slow the rate of fluid released from the stomach, while the electrolytes will aid in fluid absorption. This type of sports drink might be most beneficial to the long distance (X Country) riders who need to maintain high levels of energy over long periods of time. It’s important to note that hypertonic sports drinks fall more into the category of ‘Energy Drink’ and need to be taken with isotonic sports drinks or water as well to make sure you’re getting your proper fluid intake.

Depending on your activity level, there are benefits to each type of sports drink and you should take the time to find out which ones work best for you.

Important factors to consider are:

  • Taste – if you like the taste you’ll want to drink it.
  • Level of Exercise – are you a short distance cruisin’ kind of rider, or a mashin’ freerider, or ultra distance XC?
  • Glucose Content – so whether it is isotonic, hypotonic or hypertonic.
  • Result – how it made you feel during your ride. Did you feel alert, energized and strong? Or, did it make you feel sluggish, cause gut rot and leave you calling a buddy for lift home.

Answer to the Million Dollar question:

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Water is the best option for hydration on a daily basis. To stay hydrated and healthy, drink your 6-10 glasses a day. During training however, you might want to consider a sports drink as they do offer some advantages over water. Due to their design you’ll likely drink more and be more successful at keeping your fluid levels up. The electrolytes and glucose they provide definitely come into play after an hour or more of exertion, helping to keep your energy levels up. The risk you run though is choosing the wrong type for your activity so be sure to read the label and pay attention to the glucose content. The more glucose it has, the slower your body will re-hydrate. If you’re new to sports drinks I recommend starting with one that’s an isotonic solution. Try a couple different brands and see how they make you feel. Finding the right one might take a while, but if you do a lot of riding and training, the benefits of a sports drink can definitely pay off.

Here are some links to three Sports Drink makers so you can read more for yourself: