Editor's note: this blog focuses on the role of sugars in sports drinks. For longer workouts, many athletes require additional carbohydrates in the form of food, but that is a topic for another post.

By Vishal Patel,
Chief Nutritionist

It is no secret that our society has an issue with over-consuming sugar-sweetened beverages, and just an overall consumption of added sugars. The FDA has put forth some new rules to help consumers identify which products contain added sugars. These are sugars that are present in products but are not naturally occurring (for example: fruit has a high amount of natural sugar in the form of fructose; therefore, will not be categorized as added sugars)The new rules include a line in the nutritional/supplemental facts panel that highlights added sugars making it easier for the consumer to identify which products have high amounts of sugars.

Most of the commercial ready-to-drink sports drink options are littered with added sugars that your body simply doesn't need at that level or concentration. This has led to the low-carb sport drink movement or what I like to refer to as New Age Hydration. Because what science has proven over the course of many years is that sugar does play a role in fluid and nutrient absorption during exercise. Through the years, the amount of fluid to carb to electrolytes has been refined to help maximize the role that sport drinks have on your body during exercise. Even the exact ratio of certain types of carbohydrates to fluids have been studied to show what works best for an athlete.


What roles do sugars play in sport drinks?

When exercising, your body is losing fluid via sweat and respiration constantly. It is crucial to replace those fluid and electrolytes during exercise to ensure your muscles will function properly. What sugars do is they help bind to electrolytes (sodium in particular) and water to help deliver water and nutrients to your muscles, faster.

How much sugar do I need in my sport drink?

That answer depends on some factors:

  1. The duration
  2. The intensity
  3. The duration and the intensity

When exercising under 90 minutes, you only need a small amount of carbohydrates (about 1-2 grams in the form of dextrose or glucose) to help ensure that the fluid and electrolytes you are consuming will be absorbed.

When running or cycling for over 90 minutes, or when the intensity jumps up a bit, a different physiological process is in place that will require additional carbohydrates to help ensure what you are consuming is being absorbed. For longer duration, you want roughly 3 grams of carbohydrates per 100ml of fluid in your sport drink. That will ensure the carbohydrate concentration stays within 3%, which research has shown can help maximize fluid and nutrient delivery (and absorption).


What type of sugars do you want in sport drinks?

Research has shown that you need a combination of simple sugars to help maximize the rate of gastric emptying (the rate fluid goes from your stomach to your small intestine to be absorbed). The types of sugar play a key role. Using a blend of dextrose and sucrose will help your body tap into multiple avenues of fluid and nutrient delivery. More complex molecules like maltodextrin can pull water away from where it needs to go, delaying the rate of gastric emptying, and in some cases, causing some gastrointestinal (GI) distress.

What happens when there is too much sugar in my sport drink?

This can lead to many complications, including gastrointestinal (GI) distress, decreased exercise performance, decreased muscle function, cramping, etc. When the carbohydrate concentration is too high (above 4% or 4g per 100ml of fluid), your body needs to work harder to try to pull the fluid and nutrients to your small intestine where it can be absorbed. At a high concentration, often the body can't absorb everything you consume, which can cause GI issues.

Nuun Active contain a small amount of carbohydrates (in the form of dextrose) to help ensure you will absorb the fluid and electrolytes during shorter, lower intensity activities. For longer, higher intensity activities, Plus for Nuun adds some carbohydrates to help you get within that 3-4% carbohydrate range. 

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