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 drinks designed for cycling will serve two purposes: providing carbohydrate to fuel activity and replacing electrolytes.

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.

>>> How to stay hydrated during a Gran Fondo

However, it’s important not to undervalue real food – energy drinks are 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 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

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 £19.99

SIS Go Electrolyte energy drink

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.

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

The flavours are refreshing and go down easily.

Buy now: SIS Go Electrolyte Energy Drink at Wiggle from £16.84

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.

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 Hypotonic’ 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.

Buy now: Torq energy drink at Evans Cycles from £11 for 500g

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.

Precision Hydration electrolyte drink

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: Precision Hydration at Amazon

High5 Zero 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.

Buy now: High5 Zero tablets at Evans Cycles from £3.39

Nuun electrolyte hydration tablets

Nuun hydration tablets

Nuun hydration tablets

These 10 calorie tablets replace sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium – they also boost vitamin C levels.

There’s 13 flavour options, and four of them come with the addition of 40mg of caffeine, from Green Tea extract.

Buy now: Nuun hydration tablets at the Cyclestore for £5.85

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.

>>> What do professional cyclists eat? 

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.

>>> Best cycling water bottles and bidons 

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.