Sugar Water: It’s Not Just for Racing Anymore

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by CBCG Athlete Amy VT

“I never drink water.” - Matt Lieto, professional triathlete and the voice of IronmanLive®

It’s always a good idea to try new things on race day, right? You would never christen a shoe, saddle, or sock at a race without significant mileage of testing beforehand, and nutrition and hydration products are no exception. 

Head CBCG coach Chris Bagg says, “Athletes often avoid sports drinks in training, potentially to cut down on sugar and calories. Unfortunately, that typically leads to athletes complaining about GI issues on race day that could have been prevented with better training practices. Moreover, athletes frequently shortchange the quality of any given workout by skipping optimal fueling.”

So, why can’t we just eat our fuel and supplement with water? In a word: absorption. Whether training or racing, endurance athletes need the sugars (plural!) and elements that only sports drinks can provide, and absorption rates affect performance so drastically that it’s essential to hydrate with a scientific approach to what’s in your bottle.

CBCG Athlete John Seddon, en route to a 70.3 PR with two bottles visible and a third inside his downtube

CBCG Athlete John Seddon, en route to a 70.3 PR with two bottles visible and a third inside his downtube

So now that we know why can’t we just eat our sugars - A.K.A. carbs A.K.A. energy - what the heck is the diff among sucrose, glucose, fructose, malto, and so on? If you’re a CBCG athlete, your coach has prescribed sports drink in your race plans, largely informed by what will be on course. Ideally the concoction contains a blend of sugars that absorb at different rates, in addition to other key elements like electrolytes, potassium, and sodium. 

Dr. Asker Jeukendrup was a pioneer of studying absorption, and he posits, “Although it is known that carbohydrate (CHO) feedings during exercise improve endurance performance...studies using (stable) isotope methodology have shown that not all carbohydrates are oxidised at similar rates...Glucose, sucrose, maltose, maltodextrins and amylopectin are oxidised at high rates. Fructose, galactose and amylose have been shown to be oxidised at 25 to 50% lower rates. Combinations of multiple transportable CHO may increase the total CHO absorption.” *

Check out this infographic of how a dual source performed versus a single (and placebo). †

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Now let’s explore an ideal sports drink. Indulge me as I gush about my personal favorite product the brand new PowerBar® Isoactive sports drink mix. Eric Zaltas, founder of Pivot Nutrition LLC, is at the helm, of the PowerBar Sport® And describes this awesome new product, “Isoactive's 60 grams of C2Max carbs per liter of the drink speeds energy to your muscles. Work your way up 70-90 grams of C2Max/hour or as close as you can comfortably get to see your endurance times improve.”

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The stuff is designed for rapid absorption, and, ergo, transport of energy to muscles. I personally love the flavor, and find the specific ingredients even more ideal considering there’s ample electrolytes and sodium so I don’t need to worry about salt tabs or nuthin’ else. 

But what if you just can’t keep sports drink down the hatch during a race? What if it makes you hurl or you just can’t stand the taste? Here’s what Chris has to say to that: “It’s likely you haven’t practiced it enough it your training! If it’s just the flavor making you nauseated, think of it as medicine.” Indeed, race day isn’t a trip to the ice cream parlor. Nothing should be tasty. 

And how about Amy VT’s secret trick? I find that training with the type of plastic bottle (some fine day it will be more enviro-friendly) that will be on course can be useful. I need every nanosecond I can spare in a race, and nailing the one-handed (or teeth) twisty-turny to open and then close those disposable bottles is an art. In fact, last race I encountered the surprise of an actual plastic cap on a hinge that you had to open and close with your teeth for each sip. Race day is no time for surprises, so I find and start with the exact product and disposable bottle in my cage. 

OK, what are our takeaways? We need sports drink to absorb carbohydrates at different levels. We need to train with it, too. We need to find out what’s on course. We need to drink a lot, and drink early. Talk to your coach about what’s right for you, and relish drinking the Kool-Aid.