When I was younger, my dad drank nothing but coffee and Gatorade. Only the citrus cooler flavor. Did he drink Gatorade because he was an athlete? No. Was he even exercising? Nope… he worked construction, which carries with it a degree of physical exertion, but ultimately no, he was not exercising. Sports drinks, like Gatorade, are some of the most popular “supplements” in our society today. However, that is mostly because they are consumed for typical beverage purposes – they satisfy humans’ baser instincts of “I’m thirsty, and this tastes good.”
Even though most will taste pretty good and we’re certainly not complaining about that, their intended purpose is not enjoyment – it is to deliver some calories to fuel exercise as well as fluid and electrolytes to replace those which are lost in sweat. Not all are created equal, and we’re not just talking about taste. What does the science tell us about optimal intra-race fueling?
One of the most critical strategies for endurance athletes is fueling during your event. Without refueling, after about an hour, you’ll begin running low on carbohydrate stores and end up slowing down a bit; after 2 hours, you’ll be feeling even more sluggish; after 4 hours, you’re toast! This is why intra-race fueling is so important!
The human gut can absorb up to 1 gram of glucose per minute (60g per hour). However, the guts capabilities can be improved with co-ingestion of glucose and fructose up to 1.7 grams per minute (~100 grams per hour). This is because our intestines have specific absorption mechanisms for each type of sugar – some types of intestinal transporters can only shuttle glucose into the blood, while others can shuttle only fructose (1,2). By supplying both types of carbohydrate, we can increase absorption and support faster running, biking, and swimming!
Absorption from the intestines into the blood stream does not, however, mean all of that carbohydrate will get to the muscle and supply energy. If consuming 1.8 grams of glucose and fructose per hour, rates of muscular utilization (oxidation, “burning”) is still only 1.25-1.6 grams per minute. To maximize muscular utilization, carbohydrate (as glucose and fructose) must be consumed at a rate of 2.4 grams per minute, and this strategy enhances maximal carbohydrate oxidation to 1.75 grams per minute in highly trained individuals.
Note how that paragraph ended, “highly trained individuals.” Only the top 10-20% of athletes are going to need to ingest such high quantities of carbohydrate each hour. This is because only they have the necessary physiological adaptations to be able to make use of each gram of carbohydrate. Trained, but not elite, individuals will be in the 30-90 grams of carbohydrate per hour.
Yes, 30-90 grams is a large range of carbohydrate. It is to accommodate a large range of athletic capabilities. For example, elite marathon runners are completing their races in just over 2 hours. That means they’re covering 13 miles per hour. Someone who runs a marathon in 4 hours (~6.5 miles per hour) is still doing a good job, but this runner requires less carbohydrate per hour because they’re completing less work in the same period of time (miles). Ultimately, the 26.2 miles will require about the same amount of fuel for every athlete.
A 140.6 km distance ironman triathlon takes, on average, about 12 hours to complete. An athlete completing this race may require a total of 1000 grams of carbohydrate, which works out to be about 83 grams per hour. Also consider this, “average” athletes in this race are a little above average! That’s why they’re at the top of the 30-90 range! The record is under 8 hours now, but for math’s sake, let’s say 8 hours; that’s 125 grams of carbohydrate per hour or almost 2.1 grams of carbohydrate per hour (getting pretty close to supporting maximal oxidation at 2.4 grams per hour! That’s elite!). On the flip side, a 16-hour racer would consume about 63 grams per hour.
For your own personal use, guesstimate your total requirements at 60 grams per hour and apply it to one of your long runs or rides during training, and take a measure of your performance, such as pace or power output. Depending on how you felt, do a little more or a little less carbohydrate during your next training session. Repeat until it’s perfect! If your race lasts longer than 5 hours, you may need a practice race to get it dialed in just right because you’ll likely need more total carbs if your training is not as long.
This aspect of intra-race nutrition is complicated because it’s very individualized. The best way to determine your fluid needs are to weigh yourself before and after a 1 hour training session at race pace. You may also check your urine color and frequency. Dark, infrequent urine means dehydrated and clear, very frequent (more than every 2 hours) could be overhydration. If you can, weight yourself on the most accurate scale you can find that goes out to at least 2 decimal places (hundredths). The amount of weight you’ve lost from pre to post session is nearly all water. Take the difference in kilograms. That is how many liters of fluid you should aim to replace each hour during exercise.
Be sure to consider temperature and humidity! Higher temperatures increase how much you will sweat (duh, right!?). However, humidity is also a big deal. If there is more moisture in the air, the moisture on your skin (sweat) can’t evaporate and cool you down. The body is stupid in this regard, because it will just keep pumping out sweat, accelerating fluid loss! If it’s not humid, you also need to pay attention because all that dry heat will prevent you from feeling all sweaty and trick you into thinking you’re not sweating, but you are!
The stomach can process up to 50 mL of water each minute (3000 mL or 3 liters per hour). General rehydration recommendations range from 170mL to 1060 mL per hour, and you’re probably somewhere within that range. Since we don’t know how much you sweat/urinate and the environment you’re sweating/urinating in, we can’t provide information that will definitely suit your needs. In fact, your needs will vary race-to-race. If it makes you feel better, the average runner only drinks about 300 mL per hour! This is estimated to be less than necessary, however.
It is important to hydrate, obviously. Your body starts to shut down if you do not rehydrate. You can overhydrate as well. Hyponatremia is low blood sodium, and it is a relationship between salt and fluid balance. Too much fluid, and sodium becomes dilute. Sweating, without rehydrating with fluid and sodium, can also reduce blood sodium levels to a point of concern (rarely, this becomes fatal). So without further ado…
Much of the electrolyte discussion is just like the fluid discussion. Replace according to your needs. If you have dark urine, you may be excreting a lot of electrolytes, but this is a rough indicator, as there are other metabolites in urine. A better tell is white sweat rings on your hat or clothes when they dry. If you see any white, you’re going to need more than what is found in a sports drink. If your event lasts longer than 1-2 hours, you’re going to need more than what’s found in a sports drink.
There’s an added level of difficulty with electrolytes, though! Actually 4 extra levels. The first is sodium, as discussed, but you must also consider potassium, magnesium, calcium, and chloride. Although sodium is the primary electrolyte lost in sweat, simply consuming sodium without the others throws your regulatory systems out of whack.
Potassium is the next most important. Potassium works hand-in-hand with sodium to control blood pressure. Did you know, high sodium intake is NOT actually related to high blood pressure? It is actually the balance between sodium and potassium. People with high blood pressure do not eat enough potassium to help control sodium levels. But endurance athletes aren’t really at risk of having too much sodium (all that sweat, y’know?). Potassium is the primary electrolyte inside of cells (sodium is abundant outside of cells, in the interstitial fluid). Therefore, it is not lost as fast as sodium, but don’t forget it! It’s required for nerve and muscle function.
Similarly, magnesium is a pretty common culprit in cramping. If you’ve hydrated and added salt, but you’re still cramping. The issue is probably magnesium, so this electrolyte is pretty important as well. Calcium we know for bone health, but it is also essential for muscle contractions. Finally, chloride helps maintain blood volume.
For shorter races, replenishing electrolytes is not a significant concern, as the body should have enough already on board. For longer races, look for about 100 mg of sodium per hour if you’re a light, clear sweater and up to 2,500 mg per hour if you’re a heavy, salty sweater. Recommendations on the other electrolytes during exercise has not been researched at this time, but their relative abundance to sodium in sweat suggests replacing 22 mg of potassium, 1.7 mg of calcium, 1.7 mg of magnesium, and 78 mg of chloride per 100 mg of sodium required.
When formulating SustainElite, we performed a “competitor analysis,” which means we compared the labels of all the sports drinks we could find. The results of which we share with you in the above table. We’ve color-coded the table based on efficacy. The drinks highlighted red do NOT have all three of the most essential characteristics of a good sports drink: 1) contain at least 30g of carbohydrate per serving, 2) utilize glucose and fructose for dual transporter mechanisms, and 3) have a full profile of electrolytes (sodium, magnesium, chloride, calcium, and potassium). We strongly recommend you do NOT use these products, as they do not sufficiently cover the most elementary of bases – carbs and electrolytes.
The two highlighted in yellow do meet the three, aforementioned criteria. These are decent products, but they’re marked yellow because they only cover the basics. There is no support for muscle health (amino acids), and they still possess at least one undesirable quality. One contains all sugar, which has a very strong likelihood of creating gastric distress from a high osmotic load (it can waterlog your gut). The other sweetens with aspartame, which you may or may not care about (personally, I wouldn’t worry about it). This will not directly affect your performance. However, aspartame is associated with a number of unwanted side effects, such as cancer, weight gain, and more when consumed in large quantities. While we do not know the exact amount in this product, it is likely very low because a carbohydrate beverage should not require much help with sweetening.
SustainElite contains 30g of carbohydrate per serving with a ~4:1 ratio of glucose to fructose, matching cellular transporters, and has all 5 important electrolytes.
SustainElite covers the basics. Good – we wouldn’t be here if it didn't. Here is what makes SustainElite the best sports drink for endurance athletes. NO maltodextrin. Fast, medium, and slow releasing carbohydrates. Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs). Glucogenic amino acids. B Vitamins. These are FIVE advantages that SustainElite has over any other sports drink.
First, maltodextrin is not the end-all, be-all carbohydrate. It is good. It is better than pure glucose, but it is not the best, and to be quite frank, EndurElite wants to bring you the best. Therefore, our primary carbohydrate source in SustainElite is Cluster Dextrin®. Cluster Dextrin® has the same molecular weight as maltodextrin but with more “branching.” Branching refers to short chains of poly- and oligosaccharides that “branch” out from the main starch molecule. This enhances digestion. Research on Cluster Dextrin® has demonstrated that it has faster gastric emptying time, reducing potential for upset stomachs, and improves endurance performance (3,4). This is not to mention that high quantities, like 60 grams per hour over several hours, is a gut irritant that may cause inflammation (5-7).
Another advantage of Cluster Dextrin® is maintaining a moderate molecular weight with accelerated gastric emptying time. This means it won’t sit heavy in the stomach, but it will still digest and release carbohydrate into the blood stream over a longer period of time than sugar. Sugars are important, though, too quickly introduce carbohydrates to the system. That’s why SustainElite contains 8.6 grams of glucose (cane sugar) and fructose. The fructose, at 4.1 grams pure fructose in addition to the fructose found in sweet potato and brown rice creates an ideal ratio between glucose (all sources) and fructose. The incorporation of brown rice and sweet potato extend carbohydrate release nearly twice as long as Cluster Dextrin® or maltodextrin to help maintain blood glucose levels during racing without remaining in the stomach too long to cause discomfort.
During exercise, especially endurance exercise, muscles are heavily damaged. When this happens they break down their muscle proteins into amino acids, most of which are BCAAs. The BCAAs are released into the blood stream to be metabolized for energy. The amount of amino acids in the blood helps regulate muscle integrity, and the BCAAs stimulate processes to resist muscle breakdown. More BCAAs and other amino acids in the blood signals to the muscle that it does not need to break down its own proteins because the blood already has enough. Maintaining muscle during exercise means they will continue working the way they should from start to finish! Consuming BCAAs has even been demonstrated to improve the performance of trained cyclists compared to maltodextrin (8).
Even when adequate carbohydrate is consumed during exercise, some amino acids are still converted to glucose. These are called glucogenic amino acids. The primary glucogenic aminos are glutamine, alanine, and glycine. Together with the BCAAs and carbohydrates in SustainElite, muscle glycogen and glucose utilization are maximized.
Finally, B-Vitamins are co-factors in energy metabolism. Without them, we could not process carbohydrates (or fats or proteins) for energy. Athletes need to consume more B-Vitamins than non-athletes (9). Moreover, those who avoid red meat need even more B-vitamins. Since endurance athletes strive for good health, we know that red meat isn’t always on the menu.
SustainElite is the Alpha and the Omega. The first and the last of its kind. There are no improvements to be made. It has the best sources of carbohydrate presently available, in the right amounts, and in the right ratios. As a powder, not a pre-bottled beverage, it can be tailored to your hydration needs. It has the 5 major electrolytes without guessing at what you, a unique sweater, requires. SustainElite has amino acids critical to muscle health and glucose maintenance. It also has essential energy-production co-factors B-Vitamins. It doesn’t have the kitchen sink, but we’re working on that. Try it for yourself and see. SustainElite is the best sports drink for athletes!