Sports drinks and energy drinks are the same, right? Well, that’s what the US Food and Drug Association (FDA) would have you believe, but that isn’t exactly correct. (Source)
Sports drinks are primarily flavored water with added carbohydrates, minerals, and electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium; some may even contain vitamins and other nutrients. For people who sweat and want to replace fluids, sports drinks are their go-to.
Energy drinks, on the other hand, contain caffeine and sugar, which provides that much-needed boost but aren’t overly nutritionally beneficial.
So which one is best for athletes? It turns out that it depends on the sporting activity and its duration. Sports drinks may be the better choice for rehydration purposes only, but if a power boost is needed, that’s where energy drinks come in. There are also times when neither is a wise choice.
There isn’t really a ‘one drink for all.’ So, let’s look at the best drinks for runners, swimmers, cyclists, and triathletes.
Disclaimer: Energy drinks aren’t for everyone. They can cause side effects like dizziness or rapid heartbeat and contribute to long-term obesity and diabetes. In extreme cases, they could cause heart issues. Before consuming any, consult a medical practitioner to determine the right one for you.
What Is the Best Drink for Swimming?
Swimming is unlike other sports; it uses more muscles at once and strains the lungs and heart. Also, swimmers are in a horizontal position as they exercise, which makes a difference in blood flow. All of these factors could bring on the side effects of energy drinks much faster. As a result, sports drinks are a wiser choice.
The US Masters Swimming Organization recommends that consuming water should be sufficient if your swimming activity is under 60 minutes. Anything over an hour most often depletes your body of electrolytes, so a sports drink can assist. (Source)
Most athletes lose an average of 1–3 liters of sweat every hour. For land-based athletes, this is evident from their wet clothes and body. For swimmers, it’s not always that obvious, as it’s washed away. An electrolyte-filled sports drink can provide these lost minerals, even if you don’t think you need them.
What Drinks Are Good for Runners?
All three drink (water, sports, and energy drinks) s can be used at certain stages when competing in a running event of 60 minutes or over. During most organized marathon events, hydration stations are provided every mile. Take advantage of these whenever possible; remember, the body is already dehydrated by the time thirst kicks in.
Does your sweat burn your eyes when it drips in? If yes, then you’re a salty sweater like me. We sweat more electrolytes than other runners, so a sports drink can help with this around every hour or so.
For a half or full marathon, I need that extra power boost from an energy drink or gel. Depending on the event, I consume one every 5 miles or 45 minutes, whichever comes first, then water every mile.
What Should I Drink for Endurance Cycling?
Cyclists use more body power, faster than the other two stages, as they need to get up to speed incredibly fast. This activity will cause them to sweat, release electrolytes and quickly feel tired. Water, sports drinks, and energy drinks or gels can all help.
At least 17 oz of liquid per hour of racing is required. Start with water, and swap it out with a sports drink every hour. You will likely need energy drinks for that boost of power too. Time these around every 30–45; if you feel tired, your levels are already depleted.
Which Drink Is Best for a Full Triathlon?
During a triathlon, it’s vital to stay hydrated and replenish electrolytes to maintain your performance throughout, and an energy boost may also be required. Here is a general guideline for what to drink at each stage of a triathlon:
Before the event begins, it is recommended to drink up to 17 oz of water. You can consume water or an electrolyte-rich sports drink during the swim stage and totally avoid energy drinks.
For the bike stage, it is vital to drink frequently to prevent dehydration. Aim to drink 17 oz of water every hour and take sips of a sports drink to replenish electrolytes. You can consume an energy drink or gel if you feel fatigued.
To maintain hydration, it is important to continue drinking water and electrolyte-rich sports drinks during the run stage. Aim to drink 7–10 oz of fluid every 15-20 minutes, which is around the time between each hydration station. You can consume energy drinks and gels every 45 minutes if a power boost is needed.
It’s important to note that individual hydration needs can vary depending on factors such as the weather, your body weight, whether you’re a salty sweater or not, and the intensity of the race. It’s a good idea to experiment with different strategies during training to see what works best for you.
Just because you carry all three with you doesn’t mean you need to consume them. If you find that your energy levels remain high, then skip the energy drink.
Which Drink Not to Use as an Athlete
By now, you know that for swimmers, water for up to one hour and then sports drinks after that are ok. For runners, water is best, then sports drinks to replace lost fluids, followed by energy drinks, spread throughout the event. Cycling tends to be the most exhausting of the three, so energy drinks are more often needed for that power boost sooner.
Some people tell you that sodas and energy drinks are as bad as each other, but that’s not technically correct. Energy drinks, on average, contain 20–30g of sugar per serving. Sodas are almost double at 35–45g per serving. Beware of ‘serving sizes’ too, as some products contain 2–3 serves in every bottle or can. (Source)
You can read more on this in April’s article Why Do Cyclists and Triathletes Drink Coke? Why Not Do It?
As you can see, there really isn’t ‘one drink for all events,’ well, except for water, of course. Swimmers, you should avoid energy drinks due to the easier onset of side effects, and runners and cyclists can consume all three at various stages of the race. Remember, water is all you need if any total activity is under one hour.