With major sports drinks companies creating zero-calorie versions of their products, you might wonder which option to choose to get the most out of your next workout. Keep these things in mind.

What sports drink is best for me?

There are three types of sports drinks, which I classify as performance, hydration and calorie free.

» Performance formulas contain between 11 to 16 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving. To be effective, they should contain both sodium and potassium to replenish electrolytes lost during intense exercise, and they should not have much of anything else to make sure it digests easily. In general, a sports drink with 14 to 15 grams of carbohydrate, or sugar, and 160 to 300 milligrams of sodium per serving will work best to sustain a hard physical effort.

» Hydration formulas contain between 4 and 10 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving, which may seem appealing, but this amount of sugar is not enough to sustain intense activity. It is like putting diluted gasoline in your car. It may get you where you need to go, but you will not be able to go as fast and may even stall out along the way. These formulas do still contain electrolytes beneficial for rehydration; however, there are sugarless options that will replenish you just as well without added sugar.

» Calorie-free sports drinks are being created primarily to meet consumer demand. Again, they contain electrolytes, but these calorie-free versions also contain non-digestible sugar substitutes that may cause gas, bloating and possibly worse when consumed in large amounts during activity. In addition, they provide no tangible energy. As your body’s carbohydrate stores become depleted, there is nothing to restore your energy needs. I advise avoiding these altogether when working out or competing.

When do I need to use a sports drink?

Sports drinks are only necessary for events or continuous workouts lasting longer than 60 minutes. It is wise to use your body’s natural carbohydrate stores the first hour of exercise, drinking water to quench your thirst.

As your natural energy stores begin to deplete, your mood and stamina start to decline as well. This is a good sign that it is time to start taking in some sports drink. Eight ounces of sports drink every 15 minutes will meet your body’s energy needs. More than that, and you may get an upset stomach. Less, and you will not have enough energy to keep going strong.

Why do I need a sports drink?

The body and brain need glucose, the simplest form of carbohydrate, as an efficient energy source during exercise. Without carbohydrate, you simply cannot achieve the same level of physical effort or maintain focus and concentration. Activities that are long and continuous require carbohydrate.

As your natural stores begin to run out, you have to reduce your exercise intensity, which allows fat to serve as the primary energy source. (Side note: Even though you burn fat more exclusively at lower intensities, your body will burn a greater volume of fat in combination with carbohydrate at a higher intensity.) Therefore, if you supplement with a carbohydrate-containing sports drink, you continue to use a greater amount of carbohydrate for energy. That leads to maintaining a higher intensity, burning more calories altogether, including fat, and staying ahead of your competition.

Niki Kubiak is a sports-certified registered dietitian, competitive runner and owner of Niki Kubiak Sports Nutrition and Weight Loss. She blogs regularly for livewellnebraska.com.

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