Energy drinks for cycling: hydration explained

Not sure what the difference is between an electrolyte drink and a carbohydrate drink? We take you through the options

Keeping your liquid levels topped up on the bike is important – around 60 per cent of your body is composed of water – and dehydration can lead to mental as well as physical fatigue.

Energy and hydration drinks designed for cycling will serve two purposes: providing carbohydrate to fuel activity and replacing vital electrolytes that can be lost when sweating.

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Exercising of course burns calories, and when a ride is over 60-90 minutes, you need to replace them. Carbohydrates from energy drinks are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, so sipping on one as you ride is an effective way of refuelling and they’re great for racers who need a steady flow of energy, without the need to chew.

With the rise of more indoors cycling, it’s likely that you’ll build up a sweet pretty swiftly and need to focus more on replacing fluid and vital electrolytes than replenishing depleted energy stores. Reaction to heat is individual – but there are some steps we can all take to keep ourselves hydrated. 

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It is important not to undervalue real food – energy and hydration drinks can be expensive and higher in sugar than the contents of an average kitchen cupboard or most energy bars.


Energy drinks explained


On to the electrolyte half of the equation: when you sweat, you lose vital salts and minerals such as sodium, potassium and magnesium. These need to be topped up to restore balance, and failing to do so can cause cramp among other symptoms.

Energy drinks are usually bolstered with these essential additives, or you can choose to use an electrolyte only mix, getting your carbs in with solid food. It’s important to know the difference, and to choose the right option for you. A common approach is to carry a bottle of each on long rides, where you may want to intersperse carb fuelled sips with something less sticky.

We’ve pulled together a list of our best rated energy and electrolyte hydration drinks – but you’ll find detailed information about how they work and how to tailor your nutrition to your needs further down the page.

With each product is a ‘Buy Now’ or ‘Best Deal’ link. If you click on this then we may receive a small amount of money from the retailer when you purchase the item. This doesn’t affect the amount you pay.

Recommended carbohydrate energy drinks

Carbohydrate drinks re-stock glycogen stores to stave off the dreaded bonk, and most contain added electrolytes too.

These will be ‘isotonic’, meaning they quench your thirst and provide energy with 4-8g carb per 100ml, or ‘hypertonic’, meaning their primary objective is to deliver energy via 8g+ of carb per 100ml.

The best energy drinks will provide multiple sources of carbohydrate, promoting quicker absorption and studies have shown that 2:1 glucose/fructose mixes allow for maximum uptake (up to 90g an hour).

High5 energy drink £16.47 per kg

High5 energy drink

High5 energy drink

High5’s energy drink uses the 2:1 fructose mix (explained below) delivering up to 90g of carbs an hour.

You get 175 calories per 47g serving, with 44g of carbohydrate, plus sodium, magnesium and potassium.

High5’s drinks come in a range of flavours – but they can be quite sticky and sweet, lending themselves to carrying an additional bottle with plain water to wash it down.

Buy now: High5 energy drink, 2.2kg at Evans Cycles for £20.85

 

SIS Go Electrolyte energy drink £17.00 per 1kg

SIS GO Electrolyte energy drink

SIS GO Electrolyte energy drink

Science in Sport (SIS) produces ‘Go Energy’ and ‘Go Electrolyte’ – the latter has the salts and minerals you need, as well as the carbs, where as ‘Go Energy ‘ is purely pre-race, to be used as part of your carbohydrate loading strategy.

Each 40g serving delivers 146 calories, with 36g of carbs plus salt, calcium, magnesium and potassium.

There are five refreshing flavours to choose from, all of which are easy to drink without a water chaser.

Buy now: SIS Go Electrolyte Energy Drink, 1.6kg from Wiggle for £18.19 

Torq 2:1 Maltodextrin:Fructose energy drink

Torq energy drink

Torq energy drink

Torq’s energy drinks can be bought initially in a tub, then topped up with pouches to save on waste. It’s also worth noting that Torq don’t use any chemical sweetness, colours or artificial favours and many of it’s products are fair trade and organic.

The brand uses a 2:1 mix of glucose-derivatives and fructose for maximum absorption. The maltodextrin used sits just below the isotonic level – meaning its optimised to both deliver fuel and hydration in the form of the added electrolytes: sodium, chloride, magnesium, potassium and calcium.

Two scoops added to 500ml of water provides 120 calories and 30g of carbs.

The brand also offers a ‘Torq Hydration’ drink, which favours hydration over carb delivery. It was developed for shorter, but intense sessions and contains electrolytes with 61 calories and 15g carb per 18g serving.

Very palatable drinks that are easy on the stomach, a good option for vegans and environmental consumers.

Buy now: Torq energy drink from Wiggle from £23.10 for 1.5kg

Recommended electrolyte/hydration drinks

Hydration drinks often come as tablets and are hypotonic – this means that they contain less sugar – generally less than 4g of carbs per 100ml – and are designed to quench the thirst, not to fuel the athlete with calories.

The primary role of these products is to deliver electrolytes, lost via sweat, perfect for either shorter more intense sessions or hot weather riding, where you can opt to get your carbs from energy bars, or having a bottle of each on your bike. However, don’t be temped to just add an electrolyte scoop to your energy drink, or vice versa, as that can actually slow everything down absorption wise and even have a dehydrating effect.

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Precision Hydration electrolyte drink £8.99 per 10 tablets

Precision Hydration electrolyte drink

Precision Hydration electrolyte drink

Precision Hydration are experts in rehydration. Their powders and dissolvable tablets are hypotonic – they’re low calorie and not designed to replace glycogen.

Because people’s sweat rates and sweat content vary, the brand uses an online questionnaire to work out how much sodium you actually need to top up with.

You’ll then receive a suggestion of 250, 500, 1000 or 1500mg dose of sodium alongside potassium, calcium and magnesium – the dosage may vary depending upon the duration and intensity of your event.

Buy now: PH electrolyte drink directly from Precision Hydration from £8.99

Skratch Labs Sport Hydration Mix £14.95

Skratch Labs Hydration Drink Mix

Skratch Labs Hydration Mix

As the name would suggest, Skratch Labs nutrition is all created from scratch, so you might even find real fruity bits in your drink for a bit of unexpected fibre.

Designed to replace electrolytes lost in sweat using real fruit for flavour, means it’s light in taste and light on the belly too.

There are eight flavours to choose from, although you might be more restricted depending on what country you buy in, in ether bulk or individual servings.

Certified as non-GMO, gluten, dairy and vegan, good for those wanting a more natural nutrition option.

Buy now: Scratch Labs Sports Hydration Mix from Silverfish from £14.95

Torq Hydration drink £9.99 for 10 servings

TORQ Hydration

A combination of  glucose and sodium components, known as ‘facilitated transport’, help drive additional fluid in to the bloodstream (260 water molecules for every 1 glucose & 2 sodium molecules). Working in conjunction with the natural absorption rate, ‘passive transport’, the accelerated delivery mechanism can replace fluid and electrolytes quicker, for optimal performance.

There are three mild flavours to choose from  all of which are vegan, and contain no preservatives, artificial sweeteners or colours. Available in either 10-sachet pouches for £9.99 (making 10 x 500ml bottles), or in a 540g pouch for £19.99, ( 30 x 500ml bottles).

Buy now: Torq Hydration drink directly from Torq from £9.99 for 10 sachets 

High5 Zero tablets £6.99 for 20 tablets

High5 Zero tablets

High5 Zero tablets

A zero calorie drink that contains the electrolytes sodium and magnesium as well as vitamin C, to help reduce the chance of cramp, keep fatigue at bay as well as strengthing your immune system.

The sweetener ingredient is in the form of Sucalose, but not as natural as other brands on the market.

There are six flavours to choose from, including a neutral option to add your own flavour to, as well as a Caffeine Hit option, that contains 75mg of caffeine, about the same as a cup of coffee, and a Protect range too, which features Orange and Echinacea or Termeric and Ginger.

Buy now: High5 Zero tablets at Wiggle for £4.19 for 20 tablets 

Nuun Sport hydration tablets £6.99 for 10 tablets

Nuun Active Hydration tablets

Nuun Sport Hydration tablets

The USA company have gradually been adding to their range and there are now several Nuun drinks avaliable, most a focus on hydration over carbohydrates.

The Sport range contains 15 calories per serving (one tablet) and replaces sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium. There are two flavours in the rangewhich contain 40mg of caffeine, just a bit less than a mug of coffee.

There are four ranges of Nuun to choose from, and they now also have an Endurance range, bundle and subscription boxes as well as the all important merchandise.

 

Buy now: Nuun Sport hydration tablets from Wiggle for £5.85 for 10 tablets

Carbohydrate energy drinks

 

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 to eight per cent. They typically come as a powder, to be mixed with water.

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.

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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.

Isotonic drinks

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.

2:1 Fructose drinks

carbohydrate sports drink

What are they?

An advanced range of sports drinks, powders, bars and gels containing a blend of carbohydrate in a 2:1 ratio of glucose to fructose with added electrolytes.

Why use them?

Consuming carbohydrate during endurance exercise delays fatigue and boosts performance, but the amount that can actually be delivered to the working muscles is limited by the rate at which it can be absorbed from your digestive tract.

Current recommendations to consume 30-60g of carbohydrate an hour during prolonged exercise are based on research showing that glucose absorption is capped at around one gram per minute (or 60g per hour), with studies showing that higher concentrations are simply not absorbed, and can result in stomach upset.

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However, research focusing on the impact of combining different types of carbohydrate has shown that when glucose is consumed with fructose, carbohydrate absorption can exceed 1.5g per minute, increasing the rate of delivery to the muscles to up to 90g per hour. This is thanks to the fact that fructose is transported and absorbed via a different mechanism to glucose.

Put simply, by combining carbohydrates, you can overcome the 60g per hour saturation rule, which increases fuel availability. But does this translate to better performance? Research suggests yes – in a 2004 trial comparing glucose, glucose/fructose or control (water) beverages in trained cyclists; rates of carbohydrate oxidation were 36 per cent higher with the glucose/fructose beverage versus the pure glucose drink.

In addition researchers found that the glucose/fructose drink spared the body’s stored carbohydrate, improved water uptake from the gut and reduced the rate of perceived exertion. More recently, researchers at Birmingham University simulating a one-hour time trial after two hours of riding found an eight per cent improvement in performance when using glucose/fructose beverage, compared to a glucose-only drink.

How do I use them effectively?

For rides lasting over an hour, try swapping your usual sports drink or energy gel for a 2:1 product to increase carbohydrate delivery from 60g to 90g per hour – this equates to 1,500ml of a drink, three gels or three bars.

Remember, any change in your fuelling strategy should be tried and tested, so don’t make the switch on the day of a competition – work towards titrating your usage upwards from the standard 60g per hour.

Bear in mind that to achieve the stated 90g an hour, you’d need to get through two servings – so either a concentrated mix, or two bottles an hour.

Are they better than real foods?

Multiple transportable carbohydrates have definite benefits which could translate into that all-important performance edge during an event. The advantage of 2:1 products is convenience and the precise ratio of glucose to fructose for maximise absorption.

Carbohydrate foods do contain a mix of sugars (bananas provide glucose and fructose in a 1:1 ratio), so you could experiment with different sources, although getting 90g of carb in the all-important 2:1 ratio will require some maths.

Electrolyte/hydration drinks

What are they?

Hydration drinks are a mix of water and electrolytes (such as sodium and potassium) with little or no added carbohydrate, designed to replace the fluid and salts lost during exercise.

Why use them?

As core temperature rises during exercise the body compensates by sweating, creating a loss of water and electrolytes, with additional water lost via respiration. Although the body can cope with small changes in fluid volume, large sweat losses can lead to dehydration, which results in impaired performance, increased heart rate, reduced heat tolerance and lower reaction times.

The loss of electrolytes in sweat (primarily sodium) is also exacerbated during prolonged exercise or in hot weather. Failure to replace electrolytes, or dilution through excessive intake of plain water can result in hyponatremia (low levels of sodium) leading to muscle cramps, lethargy, nausea, headaches and in severe cases, death.

Hydration drinks prevent dehydration by replacing fluids and electrolytes. The addition of sodium also facilitates hydration as it stimulates thirst and also water absorption from the intestine, promoting fluid retention. Due to dilution of electrolytes, plain water may also suppress thirst, while hydration drinks maintain desire to drink.

How do I use them effectively?

Generally speaking, a specific hydration product isn’t necessary if you’re riding for under an hour, but they can be useful in maintaining hydration in hot conditions, or if sweat loss is high.

If you do choose one, the rule of thumb is to start your ride well hydrated, and to adopt a regular pattern of drink intake, aiming for 125ml every 15 minutes. This will help to maintain fluid balance.

Remember that if you’re riding for over an hour, you’ll also need to take carbohydrate on board, as hydration drinks don’t contain enough carbohydrate to boost endurance.

Are they better than real foods?

Flavoured beverages increase your desire to drink, and fluid consumption is more closely matched to sweat loss when athletes are offered a flavoured drink over plain water during exercise. In hot and humid conditions they’re an effective way to maintain adequate hydration, although during longer rides you’ll need to consider a carbohydrate source.

On the downside, these drinks can be expensive, and in rides lasting under an hour in relatively cool conditions, good old water will do the job nicely. If you’re not a fan of plain water, you can add a bit of squash and a pinch of salt to your water bottle to increase motivation to drink.