Energy Drinks for Runners - what they should contain, the best ones, and the ones to avoid

There's a lot of discussion about energy drinks in the sports realm and particularly in the field of running. Some could never run another step without their sports drink while others have no faith in them at all.  So what's the scoop? To use or not to use? When? Where? Why? Which ones are scams? Which ones are the real deal?

What Exactly is an "Energy/Sports" Drink?

Energy/Sports drinks are beverages that contain some sort of physical or mental stimulant. The most common stimulant used is caffeine however there are a host of others such as ginseng.

You are probably familiar with the most common energy drinks such as "5 Hour Energy", "Red Bull", and "Monster" however even soda pops can be classified as an energy drink with the high levels of caffeine that it contains.

As a runner it is important to look at the ingredients and make sure that you choose an energy drink that meets your running and fuel needs. It has been proven that caffeine does not greatly enhance performance if at all.  Not only that but caffeine is a diuretic which pulls water from the cells and causes us to become even more dehydrated. Needless to say, as a runner our focus should be elsewhere.  So what exactly are we looking for?

First let's answer the big question.


Are They Important for Me as a Runner?

As a marathon runner the answer is undoubtedly, yes. In fact in any endurance sport there is almost always a need for some sort of supplemental energy drink.

During a marathon you are losing a lot of fluid and not only that but you are offsetting your sodium balance through sweating. If you stick to drinking only large amounts of water during the race you put yourself at risk of developing a condition known as hyponatremia (a.k.a. water intoxication.

Hyponatremia is a  dangerous situation, due to loss of sodium and excess water intake causes an imbalanced blood-brain barrier which leads to water entering the brain and causing swelling and a host of symptoms from mild (headache, dizziness, nausea) to severe (seizure, coma, cardiac arrest and even death).

One way that hyponatremia can be avoided is by using energy drinks that contain electrolytes (sodium and potassium). As we sweat we lose these electrolytes and it is important to replace them especially in long duration exercise and races (over an hour in length).

Another important use for sports drinks is to replace depleted glycogen stores. Glycogen is a polysaccharide (simple terms: a sugar) which is obtained from carbohydrates and stored in the muscles. It is the fuel that is being used to allow us to run long distances.

If this is not replenished then muscle fatigue sets in and we are no longer to go the distance. Runner’s often refer to this as “crashing” or “hitting the wall”. It's as simple as a car needing gas. If there is no gas there isn't going to be any movement. But that's what the "Marathoner's 8 Step Personalized Plan to Avoid the Wall" kit is for: calculating how much glycogen you can store, what mile you will crash if you don't refuel, and how much energy drink YOUR body needs to avoid crashing during a marathon. 


How Often Should Energy Drinks be Used?

In exercise that is less than an hour in length, water is sufficient to meet your fuel needs. Of course you still will be losing glycogen and electrolytes but since you aren't continuing to exercise past an hour you don't need to refuel DURING your run though you will need to refuel by either food (best choice) or drink after exercise in order to aid in recovery.

When completing your training long runs and races, especially the marathon and the half marathon, you should be refueling with an carbohydrate-electrolyte filled energy drink from the beginning. This will allow you to metabolize the fuel (carbohydrates) to be used later in your run.

If you experience a "crash", as many runners do during long runs, it is probably because of insufficient fuel sources and depletion of glycogen. This is why it is important to hydrate early on in races and long distance runs so that you will have the fuel reserves when needed.


GUIDELINES: 

Drink about 20-40 fluid ounces of sports drink every hour (about 8 fl. oz.  every 15 minutes). An easy way to make sure you are getting the correct amount is to make marks on your hydration bottle.


What to Look for in an Energy Drink

Carbohydrates! A lot of people look at carbohydrates as evil. They are absolutely necessary though for runners! We get very little fuel from the breakdown of proteins. In long duration exercise we will use fats as a fuel source but our main source of energy is and always will be carbohydrates. Try to run a half marathon on a high protein and low fat diet…you won’t get far.

That being said you need to make sure that your energy drink contains a substantial amount of carbs.

Look at the carbohydrate concentration: Your energy drink of choice should contain anywhere from 4-8% carbohydrate. This will allow for adequate absorption of carbs and water.

How can you measure this by looking at a bottle? First, take the carbohydrate content in grams and divide it by the total fluid volume in milliliters. Then multiply that number by 100. So for example, a 1000mL drink that contains 60 grams of carbohydrates will give you a 6% carbohydrate solution. 

                    60g/1000mL = 0.06

                    0.06*100 = 6.0%

Depending on the weather, the 4-8% recommendation will change. In hot and humid temperatures keep the carbohydrate solution to around 5% so as not to become dehydrated. In colder temperatures you can drink a more heavily concentrated solution of around 15% carbohydrates.

 The drink should be a combination of fructose and sucrose carbohydrates. You will need to check  the nutrition label, to see if these carbohydrates are contained in the drink. The combination of these two types of carbohydrates help to keep you hydrated through water and help to absorb carbohydrates faster for fuel.

It should contain electrolytes. Again, you will need to look at the nutrition label on the drink in order to see if it contains electrolytes. The 4 main electrolytes that you should be looking for are: sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium.


What's Right for You?

I realize that switching up your training/fuel/nutrition plan can be a hard thing to do for some runners with strong habits. It will take time to adjust to a new hydration schedule if you aren't already following the proper guidelines. Not only that but finding an energy drink that agrees with you can also pose a problem.

Stick to these points and you will be off to a good start:

  •  Does it taste good?
  •  Does it cause little or no stomach distress?
  •  Does it contain the right amount of carbohydrate solution (4-8%)?
  •  Does it allow for electrolyte replacement?

If you answer yes to all of these, then you may have found the right one for you.


Some Energy Drinks that Meet the Requirements for a Long Distance Runner

I do earn a small commission if you choose to go with one of the following. There are obviously tons of  companies available, but again this is my recommendation based on my experience with the company, the research and the drink. If you do purchase through my affiliate link, thank you so much for your support!

The most notable (and probably widely used) energy drink is the Gatorade Thirst QuenchersThey contain both sucrose and glucose and have a carbohydrate solution of 6%. It also has good levels of electrolytes (sodium and potassium). You can get the correct dosages in either the powder packages or the 20 fl. oz. liquid bottles (like this one). The smaller individual size bottles (~16oz.) actually do not contain an accurate carbohydrate concentration for runners and also sometimes contain high fructose corn syrup so stay away from them and stick with the first two options. 

Meb Keflezighi uses Generation UCAN as his form of energy. He gave credit to this energy drink after his Boston Marathon win in the Spring of 2014. Generation UCAN is composed of SuperStarch which is a complex carbohydrate made of non-GMO corn that breaks down in the body slowly releasing a steady stream of energy.

The PowerBar Perform drinks are also a good choice with a slightly higher carb concentration of 7%. They have electrolytes for replenishing and do contain fructose.

Quickkick combines fructose and sucrose (the best blend) but has only about 5% carbohydrate solution. Still a great choice.

The GU Roctane powder is also an excellent blend with carbs of fructose, electrolyte replacement, and no high fructose corn syrup.

Another good choice is the 10-K Brand Sports Drink which contains roughly 6% carbohydrate solution, adequate electrolytes and glucose, fructose and sucrose.

Which ones to avoid?

Some that you will want to ignore are the PowerAdes which have 8% carbohydrate solution but uses high fructose corn syrup as the main carb fuel source. Sodas (dark and light) and All-Sports brand drinks should also be avoided for better options.

Note:

Also, it should be noted that you shouldn't cut water from your long runs and focus solely on glycogen replacement. Keep the water and drink it with or in between refueling with the carb drink. Both are just as important in runs of long duration!

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