Drinking properly – the perfect sports drink

(c) Kathrin Schafbauer

Quench your thirst during training, tours and races! These “ingredients” all belong in the water bottle – plus the optimal drinking strategy.

Especially now in the heat of the moment – during a race or intensive training – it is extremely important to fill up with enough liquid energy. Nutritionist Corinne Reinhard from Powerbar, who holds the renowned diploma in sports nutrition from the International Olympic Committee, provides answers to the most important questions about the ideal sports drink and an optimal drinking strategy.

Which drink is suitable as a sports drink?

“This depends on the upcoming load and the goal of the training session. If you want to trigger your fat metabolism or take a relaxed, short ride, you should primarily resort to water or carbohydrate-free drinks.

Special hypotonic or isotonic sports drinks or homemade special juice- or tea mixtures can be useful in competitions or during longer training sessions with the goal of improving performance. Isotonic sports drinks allow a 3:1 intake: liquid and electrolytes (especially sodium) for rehydration and carbohydrates for energy.

However, it is an individual decision whether the athlete takes in the required carbohydrates during exercise by means of a drink or by means of bars, rice cakes, gels or even a mix of liquid and solid food. The drink choice must therefore be considered together with the planned carbohydrate strategy.

Last but not least: taste preferences and tolerability are decisive when choosing the right thirst quencher. For reasons of digestibility, athletes should therefore generally avoid carbonated drinks.

How much should a road cyclist drink during a ride?

“The actual liquid requirement depends on sweat loss. The amount of sweat is influenced by numerous factors such as climatic conditions, duration and intensity of the session, genetics or the individual fitness level and is therefore different for every athlete.

During exercise, sufficient liquid should be provided to prevent major dehydration. But the athlete should not drink too much either – because weight gain is to be avoided under any circumstances.

A rule of thumb for longer sessions is to drink about 400 to 800 millilitres of liquid per hour, regularly in smaller amounts, e.g., every 15 to 20 minutes about 150 millilitres of liquid.

For somewhat more relaxed and less ambitious road cyclists, drinking can work well when listening to their feeling of thirst. For better trained cyclists and during competition or long rides, an individual drinking plan is useful”.

(c) Henning Angerer

Which simple strategies can be used to determine the optimal liquid requirement?

“The colour of the urine is a simple indicator to roughly assess the liquid balance before a ride. Ideally, the colour of the urine should be a faint light yellow. A darker colour, such as the colour of apple juice, e.g., indicates a liquid deficit and the liquid intake should be increased.

However, certain foods (e.g. beetroot), vitamin supplements or antibiotics can affect the colour of the urine, so this simple check is no longer a reliable indicator then.

The easiest way to determine the approximate liquid requirement during a long ride is to check your weight with a precise body scale directly before and after the session (weighed unclothed and dried off). The difference between the two values plus the amount drunk during the session – and ideally minus urine loss – gives a good estimate of sweat loss.

If the calculated amount of sweat is then divided by the duration of the session, the optimum quantity of liquid per hour can be estimated for future similar loads under the same environmental conditions. A liquid loss of less than two to three percent of the body weight is no problem, by the way”.

The right drinking strategy for sports: Calculation of liquid loss & drinking requirements

Why do many athletes tolerate liquids rather than solid food under high loads?

“Why some athletes tolerate liquid carbohydrate suppliers better mostly towards the end of very intensive and longer training session has hardly been researched to date. Factors that could play a role include, e.g., that the more fatigued an athlete is, the more carbohydrate-containing drinks or semi-liquid foods such as gels are preferred and probably ‘tolerated’ in this sense.

In addition, chewing during high-intensity exercise is not so easy and a combined intake of liquids and carbohydrates can also save time.

It is known that at rest, gastric emptying of solid food is slower than that of liquid. This is partly due to the fact that solid food components, food with a high particle size or food containing fibre, fat and protein remain longer in the stomach. 

In order to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal problems during exercise, solid carbohydrate suppliers should always be as low as possible in fat, fibre and protein, and intake should be in balance with the liquid regime.

Not to forget: whether ripe bananas, low-fat rice cakes, gels, sports drinks or special carbohydrate bars are better suited and tolerated as fuel suppliers must always be tested individually”.

(c) Kathrin Schafbauer

What should an athlete pay attention to if – as the case with indoor training – the cooling airstream is missing?

“Many cyclists sweat more and therefore need more liquids. Sweating is an important mechanism for releasing the heat that is generated when muscles work and can be intensified by environmental conditions. This helps to keep the body temperature within an acceptable range, i.e. to prevent the body from overheating.

A liquid loss of more than two to three percent of body weight (before the training/race) should be avoided in most cases. Furthermore, a loss of liquid, especially in very warm temperature conditions, can impair cognitive function and endurance performance.

What’s important: The ride should always be started with a levelled liquid balance. The only exception is when the athlete deliberately wants to train in a dehydrated state. This is a nutritional method that is sometimes used by professional athletes in selected training sessions”.

Some drinks, fizzy tablets or powders contain caffeine. For whom are such drinks suitable?

“Caffeine can have performance-enhancing effects on endurance performance and on short, high-intensity forms of exercise such as sprinting. These effects can be explained by increased endorphin release, improved neuromuscular function, improved alertness and attention and reduced perception of exertion, among other things.

Both amateur and professional cyclists can benefit from taking caffeine about 60 minutes before and/or during a longer session. However, the effect of caffeine on athletic performance varies greatly from individual to individual. Gender and daily caffeine consumption do not seem to be relevant.

However, according to current data, the benefits of caffeine supplementation in hot ambient temperatures are less clear. Athletes must find out for themselves when and in what quantity caffeine is sensible and tolerable during training.

An interesting scientific article on caffeine by nutritionist Corinne Reinhard.

When is salt additionally necessary?

“Sodium – a component of common salt – is the most critical electrolyte when it comes to sporting performance. In terms of quantity, it is the mineral that the athlete sweats out most. Therefore, athletes that sweat heavily – e.g. due to long and intensive rides – or whose sweat is particularly salty, should consider sodium intake during exercise.

Drinks, bars or gels with added sodium help to compensate for the loss and support liquid retention. Sodium also stimulates the feeling of thirst, which is useful in cases of high sweat loss”. In Powerbar’s “nutrition guide cycling” you will find even more information about sports nutrition.