The sports drink debate


Hannah Reynolds

When you are racing or doing long, hard sportives, purpose-designed sports products are the best way to ensure you are properly fuelled and hydrated for the task at hand. Sports supplements companies have invested millions of pounds into research to discover how the body uses carbohydrates and to identify the most rapidly absorbed fuels for high performance.

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One of people’s main concerns with using energy products is the risk of having an upset stomach or feeling bloated. This can happen, but is often down to misuse of products as much as the products themselves. Our bodies can only absorb 60-90g of carbohydrate an hour, depending on what type of carbohydrate it is. Sports foods are highly concentrated and easy to eat, so they enable us to take on a lot of carbohydrate very quickly but it also makes it easy to take on too much. Often stomach problems are due to riders overeating or not using products correctly.

Stomach for it
Mixing and matching ‘real’ food with sports food can be disastrous if you pick the wrong things. Often riders complain that they get sick of eating too much sweet energy food but having something savoury but fatty such as cheese or meat can ‘plug’ your stomach preventing the energy products you have afterwards from being absorbed properly and it is this that can lead to bloating or stomach pain.

Not every sports product is right for every rider. It is really important to experiment with different brands in training before you try anything new in racing. It isn’t necessary to use everything from the same product range, although manufacturers will try to tell you it is. You could pick and mix from several different companies to find your favourite gels, bars or drinks. As long as you are reading the carb quantities per item and calculating the amount you need per hour you shouldn’t have problems.

Using sports foods makes it very simple to do the maths and create a nutrition strategy that will work for any given race or sportive. If you know you need 60g of carb per hour you can calculate how much fluid, gels and bars you need to be eating and when. Keeping an eye on the time and reminding yourself to eat can help break up an event and ensure that you don’t reach a point where you are behind with your fuelling and get into a hole you will struggle to get out of.

Eat to succeed
This all sounds very dry and serious but getting your nutrition right can be the difference between not just success and failure, but having a good day out and feeling rotten at the end. If you aren’t as fit as you would like to be, eating properly and having a good strategy will give you the best chance of making good use of the fitness you’ve got. Don’t make it harder by eating badly.

I’m not just saying this as a fitness editor who has read too many puff press releases from nutrition companies – this is also from experience. I’ve blagged my way round several mountainous sportives that I really wasn’t fit enough for simply by getting the nutrition right. I also raced a 24-hour solo and while other riders were opting for ‘real’ food and suffering gastro issues I ate nothing but energy bars, gels and carb drink with no side effects at all. For me, this was the greatest test of a nutrition strategy – it convinced me that for performance and stomach comfort energy products are the way to go.

Hannah Reynolds is fitness editor of Cycling Weekly, Cycling Active and Cycling Fitness. She also races and regularly rides sportives.


Louise Mahé

With many riders looking for that edge when it comes to improving performance, whether to help get them through a sportive, a race or simply to get the best out of each training session, one simple, yet effective, way to see an increase in performance is ensuring you fuel your body properly for exercise.

With so many options filling our shelves, from carbohydrate drinks, energy bars, gels, protein shakes and electrolyte replacement tabs, sports nutrition can be a confusing and expensive world. With the global sports nutrition market worth over £60 billion, it’s easy to understand why there’s so many different products and companies vying for a bite of the cherry, but is it worth your money buying these, often overpriced, products?

It has been proven that intake of carbohydrates during endurance exercise will help improve performance, but there is no right or wrong ways to get these carbohydrates into your body. So eating a jam sandwich is just as good at getting the job done as an energy bar is, but often eating the latest bar on the market is just as big an obsession as riding or wearing the latest kit.

Many amateur riders see pros eating these bars and squeezing gels down their necks to endorse specific products, but often, riders are also meeting their nutritional needs in a more natural way. Sandwiches or homemade bars and tarts as well as the old favourite of flat Coke in their bidons nearer the end of a race are often the pros’ fuel of choice.

Fuelling yourself on homemade bars or sandwiches is cheaper than bulk-buying bars, which often end up going out of date in your cupboards. You can make the quantity you need on the day of your event, using ingredients you know you like and will actually eat. It’s just a case of understanding what it is you need at different points during your rides or races.

Bananas, for example, are a great natural source of energy while riding, and of course they come in biodegradable wrappers that you don’t have to worry about dropping. If you are getting your carbohydrates in through food and eating enough there’s no need to worry about putting anything but water in your drink bottles.

DIY recovery
Similarly to fuelling during your ride, making your own protein recovery drink or bar is just as simple. Using fresh fruit and some whey protein, a great post-ride smoothie can be made, giving all the benefits of a protein shake. Even just eating a high protein and carbohydrate meal or sandwich will help with recovery after a tough event or training session.

So, while fuelling correctly for your riding is very important, how you choose to do it is not. Going natural is often nicer, with fresher ingredients, making more things that suit your personal preferences and being lighter on the purse are all reasons to steer clear of the mass-produced energy products.

Eating countless processed bars or gels is not great for the gut, so even if you choose to still use them sometimes, try to mix it up with some natural energy too.

Louise Mahé is a fitness writer for Cycling Weekly. She was also junior national road champion and still races.


The original version of this article was published in the April 4 2013 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine

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