Pop quiz: You’re kitting up and getting ready to hit the road with your crew for a Saturday morning ride. You open the pantry and crack open the tub of sports drink mix to discover—d’oh!—a mere dusting of mix remains. Do you: A) Get to the shop in time to buy a few portable drink mix sleeves or tabs? B) Ask the bunch to swing by 7-11 on the way out of town so you can grab a bottle of something blue and sugary for the ride? C) Say screw it, and hit the road on water alone?
How about D) None of the above. Here’s an über-easy option few of us consider that is now scientifically proven to work just as well as, if not better than, your standard sports drink: Put some sugar in your water.
In a study published in American Journal of Physiology—Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers had 14 endurance-trained male cyclists drink either a sucrose (table sugar) drink or a glucose drink before and during a three-hour ride in a blind study. Two weeks later, they did it again, only this time switching beverages. Each time, the researchers used an imaging technique called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to monitor how much glycogen the riders had stored in their livers and muscles before and after riding. They also drew blood samples to check glucose and lactate levels and captured some exhaled breath samples to measure their oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. Riders reported how they felt, including their energy levels, fatigue, and/or GI comfort or discomfort.
In the end, both drinks helped preserve liver glycogen levels, and muscle glycogen dropped no matter which drink they used. However, overall carb-burning was higher with the sucrose beverage and the riders reported feeling less fatigued and had fewer incidents of GI discomfort when they were drinking it during their long ride. So though both drinks worked, the sucrose sweetened one helped them feel and perform a bit better.
“Sucrose can provide the necessary carbohydrate during exercise to prevent a drop in blood glucose, which is really the reason you’re taking in fuel for prolonged activity,” says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, a sports nutritionist at Pittsburgh based company Active Eating Advice and co-author of Bike Your Butt Off. “A mix of carbohydrate, like sucrose, which is actually two sugars—glucose plus fructose—may be more efficiently used by your muscles during exercise than a single source such as glucose,” she says. That’s because each sugar has specific transporters in the intestines and once one type’s transporters become saturated, you can’t absorb any more of that type until they become available again and they can only absorb so much per hour.
Of course, the flavor won’t be as finely tuned or interesting as your favorite sports drink’s, which isn’t a small deal: When you like the taste of something, you’re more likely to drink what you need to stay hydrated.There are also no electrolytes in the mix, unless you add them. But that, too, is well within your grasp, says Bonci. And it’s really cost effective.
“The carbohydrate is the cheapest part of the sports drink,” She says. “We pay for the bottle, added flavors, and any number of added ingredients. Sugar water is not fancy and pretty but can be as effective, and if you add a couple of shakes of salt you have a drink that’s comparable to a sports drink at a fraction of the cost. A spoonful of sugar helps the wheels go round, in a cost-delightful way!”
DIY Drink Mix Recipes
Bonci recommends these DIY drink mix recipes, each of which makes about 28 to 30 ounces of sports drink—enough for one large bottle or two small ones.
Short & Sweet
Fill a large bike bottle with water*
5 Tablespoons sugar
¼ tsp. salt
*For improved flavor, slice an orange and/or lemon into the water and let it sit overnight
2.5 cups water
1 cup coconut water*
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
*Good for extra potassium
Taste of Honey
3.5 cups water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons sugar + 1 tablespoon honey
1/4 cup pineapple juice