What are they?
A blend of carbohydrate, water and electrolytes. Most commercially available sports drinks contain a mix of carbohydrates from different sources (eg sucrose, glucose, fructose) at a concentration of around six-eight per cent.
Why use them?
As the body’s primary source of fuel during prolonged and high intensity exercise, depletion of muscle carbohydrate is one of the primary causes of fatigue, and can severely limit your ability to perform on longer rides.
Studies show that consumption of a carbohydrate drink during rides lasting over 60 minutes is an effective way to boost endurance. By providing the working muscles with additional fuel you can delay fatigue, with some research suggesting up to a 20 per cent improvement in performance during exercise lasting 90 minutes or more.
Ingesting carbohydrate during exercise also has positive effects on the central nervous system, which can provide an additional mental ‘boost’.
How do I use them effectively?
During rides lasting over 60 minutes, consuming 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour will delay fatigue and help you sustain an optimum pace. One litre of an isotonic carbohydrate drink will provide around 60g of carbohydrate – so aim for around 250ml every 15-20 minutes.
Drinks containing a blend of carbohydrates have been shown to boost absorption and increase the amount of carbohydrate that gets to the working muscles (see 2:1 glucose fructose).
Avoid concentrated drinks containing more than six-eight per cent carbohydrate (hypertonic), as these slow the rate at which fluid is absorbed, and can also cause gastrointestinal discomfort.
Are they better than real foods?
Carbohydrate drinks are a convenient option, which have the added bonus of facilitating the replacement of fluid and electrolytes.
However, this isn’t to say it’s not possible to fuel your rides with real food – in a 2012 study from Appalachian State University, bananas were shown to be as effective as a six per cent carbohydrate drink in sustaining power output and performance in a group of male cyclists completing a 75km time trial.
Reliance on carb drinks can be an expensive habit. To get around this consider making a DIY isotonic drink by mixing 200ml ordinary squash with 800ml cold water and a pinch of salt.
Whether you use a carb drink is up to you – the key is to develop a plan which allows you to consume the recommended 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour.
Electrolyte drinks containing six-eight per cent carbohydrate are known as isotonic – they contain the same concentration of dissolved particles (salts and sugars) as body fluids, which promotes hydration.
Don’t drink, just swill
If you’re cycling for under an hour, carbohydrate drinks aren’t necessary, although studies show very small amounts may provide a boost via effects on the central nervous system. To benefit, simply swill the mouth with your chosen beverage.
Multipower Iso Drink
An isotonic carbohydrate drink with electrolytes and branched chain amino acids.
Gatorade G Series Pro O2 Perform
Based on dextrose this drink provides 30g of carbohydrate per 100ml.
Blend of maltodextrin and dextrose as well as six key electrolytes for hydration.
The original version of this article appeared in the April 4 2013 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine