Whether your goals are are to lose fat, bring up your strength, build hulking muscles or drop your 10K time, the nutrition you give your body before, during, and after exercise can help you reach your goals faster. On the other hand, if you shortchange your body on fuel, or overcompensate for calories burned, you can end up moving away from your goals.
Many athletes and recreational exercisers wonder if they should be drinking water while exercising, or if they would benefit from a workout drink. And if a workout drink is recommended, how much carbohydrate should it supply? Should it have protein or amino acids in it? What about fat? Is it all just marketing anyway?
Read on for some tips to help you determine whether you would benefit from a workout drink, and if so, how to find what you should be sipping for best results.
This is the perfect drink for you if you are exercising at a low intensity, for short periods of time. If you’re just shooting some hoops with your kids or driving some golf balls after work, no need to get out the fancy shmancy beverages. Good old water is great for keeping hydrated and replacing minimal sweat losses. Plus, being calorie-free it’s the best thing for exercisers hoping to create a calorie deficit to achieve weight loss. And you can’t ignore the cost: free. If you’re currently drinking water during your training sessions and are happy with your results, carry on. If it ain’t broke…
Carbohydrate and Electrolyte Sports Drink
Most commercial sports drinks fall into this category, like Powerade, Gatorade, and the like. Standard sports drinks contain carbohydrates in the form of sugars and oligosaccharides, and also electrolytes which help replace minerals and salts lost in sweat, and facilitate the absorption of carbohydrate in the gut. If you are training in hot weather and sweating a lot, consuming a carbohydrate-containing beverage can help keep your blood sodium levels normal and prolong endurance compared to water.
There’s a ton of evidence that compared to water, athletes training hard can perform better for longer with a carbohydrate plus electrolyte drink. But for most recreational exercisers or those trying to shape up… supplemental carbohydrates can just be extra calories which can slow weight loss. As a general rule of thumb, I recommend switching from water to a carbohydrate and electrolyte drink if your training lasts for more than 60-90 minutes or if you are more interested in peak performance than weight loss.
Another reason someone might choose a carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage instead of one with additional amino acids or protein is if they have a sensitive stomach. Especially during prolonged or high intensity sports, many people have nausea or other complaints which make staying hydrated and fueled a challenge. Since amino acids and proteins can delay gastric emptying, straight carb and electrolyte drinks may be more well-tolerated than the other options below. Let’s face it, if your workout beverage ends up on the sidewalk at mile 11 it’s not doing you ANY good.
Some tips for choosing a carb-electrolyte beverage: dilute it as needed to improve digestion, and experiment with different brands. Some formulas are higher or lower osmolarity, which can make a difference in how your stomach tolerates them, especially when working at near peak capacity (say, running a marathon at race pace). One formula I particularly like is ROC20 by Amway’s Nutrilite brand. It is formulated with Red Orange Concentrate, plant derived phytochemicals which have been shown to decrease oxidative damage. It has never bothered my (very sensitive) stomach. Plus, I think it tastes better than any other sports drinks I’ve had. I like the convenience of having the powder, so I can mix it to the strength I want, and add other stuff such as…
Branched Chain Amino Acids
The branched chain amino acids, or BCAAs, are leucine, isoleucine and valine. Increased availability of these amino acids have anabolic effects on muscle both at rest and during the recovery phase from exercise, during which protein turnover is high. Consuming branched chain amino acids increases muscle protein synthesis and slows the degradation of muscle proteins, both of which are favorable if muscle building is desired. (Curious how that works? For the biogeeks out there, they work through mTOR phosphorylation and p70 s6k activation (1). For the non-biogeeks, they turn on the machinery that build the proteins that give you that brawny physique. Good enough?)
Compared to plain water, there is evidence that sipping BCAAs can help prolong endurance and reduce the perceived exertion felt at a given workload (2). And hey, who wouldn’t like to feel a little less fatigued on their last set of squats or on the home stretch of a hard road bike ride? Studies have also supported that branched chain amino acid ingestion during exercise can result in less muscle soreness and improved recovery (3).
Are they for you? If you are exercising at a high intensity and want to maximize recovery and minimize muscle loss during a fat loss phase, BCAAs might be a good idea to try out. They are something I recommend to virtually all of my clients training for fat loss but also trying to hang onto or build muscle. Because branched chain amino acids provide negligible calories, they are a preferred supplement to higher-energy drinks for those working to lose fat.
Some practical considerations for BCAAs include taste and cost. Shopping around can help with finding a decent price. As for taste, unflavored BCAAs are, to put it politely, not very palatable. Or as certified strength and conditioning specialist Jason Bonn so eloquently describes it, “skunk’s ass that’s been wiped on a chemistry lab floor after a horse pissed on it.” Not for me. Thankfully, there are flavored formulas that taste great, so no need to suffer through plain BCAAs. I love Scivation Xtend (especially the blue raspberry flavor). Recoup by Dymatize has also been pretty popular with my clients, but I have not tried it personally.
Among my colleages and clients who elect to go with the unflavored BCAAs, strategies for covering the taste include mixing with Greens+, adding lemon or lime juice, mixing in a sweetener of choice, or just plain reverting to BCAAs in capsules so you don’t have to taste them at all.
Carbohydrates and BCAA
Combining carbohydrates and BCAAs together is another option. Whether or not the addition of carbohydrates is a good idea for you depends on your training intensity, body type and goals. Dr. Krista Scott-Dixon of Stumptuous.com recommends a combo of BCAA and carbohydrates for anyone with blood sugar management issues (e.g. type 1 diabetes) who finds that their blood sugar drops sharply during training. In my clients who are on carbohydrate-limited nutrition plans for fat loss, sometimes I will recommend adding carbohydrates to a workout drink to help alleviate fatigue and allow for workout intensity to remain high.
My workout drink of choice: 1 liter of water + 15 grams of carbohydrate from Roc2O + 5 grams of BCAAs (1 scoop Xtend), which makes for a rather dilute, low calorie beverage, with some extra support to keep blood sugar stable and help with muscle recovery. And it tastes nice and fruity, quite pleasant to drink. It’s just enough nutrition to keep my blood sugar from crashing until I get home to chow down.
If you’re just doing a quick training session, though, additional carbohydrates may not be necessary. Brawn-building expert Chuck Dertinger suggests including only carbohydrate in a workout beverage for those working out for at least 30 minutes at 8 or more METs.
Carbohydrates and Protein
Trading branched chain amino acids for complete proteins is another option. This type of workout drink would be best suited to those who are trying to gain muscle mass and size. Consuming both carbohydrates and a full complement of amino acids provides the best stimulus for anabolism and minimizing muscle breakdown. So why doesn’t everyone do this? First of all, these drinks provide the most calories, so if you are trying to shed fat as goal #1, they can be counterproductive. Secondly, not everyone can stomach a protein and carbohydrate drink while training. A tip to make the drink go down easier: choose proteins which are extensively hydrolyzed (aka broken down into smaller pieces, for faster absorption) such as whey hydrolysate. There are products available that offer carbohydrates, proteins and extra BCAAs in a convenient powder, but you can also make up your own blend at TrueNutrition.com. Add in the protein you want, flavors you like, and get it mixed up just for you. For starters, a good mass building rule of thumb is to shoot for a ratio of 2:1 carbs to protein.
How Bout Whole Food?
All this is not to say that whole, unprocessed foods can’t be your source of workout nutrition. Among the experts I interviewed for this article, several commented that there are alternatives to buying sports drinks, BCAAs, and powdered proteins. Dr. Scott Dixon says, “Oldtimers didn’t guzzle blue drinks full of chemicals and sugar. They drank milk between sets and ate meat and eggs before and afterwards….a blenderized banana and whey protein or cottage cheese would make a fine protein and carb shake.” Kate Kline, fitness and nutrition coach, advises her fat loss clients who can’t afford or don’t want to take BCAAs to have a pre-workout and post-workout meal with lean protein in it and not worry. I’m often asked by cash-strapped college students what to do if they can’t afford supplements. My answer: Eat well and don’t sweat it.
There are a lot of options for workout drinks, and the one that’s best for you will depend on your workout, body type, goals and preferences. As a general rule of thumb, if you want to improve recovery and encourage muscle growth or maintenance, add BCAAs (less calories) or hydrolyzed protein (more calories). If you are training for long stretches, have trouble keeping your blood sugar up, or need a possible extra edge on the competition, consider adding carbohydrate. If you aren’t satisfied with your fat loss progress, take carbs out. And if your drink is hurting your stomach or making you nauseous, try diluting it or reducing the amount of protein to make it more digestible. Finding what works best for your body is as much an art form as a science.
Free Stuff Never Hurt, Right?
If you’d like to score some of what I’m drinking, enter to win one of 5 boxes of ROC20 sports drink (which you can enjoy as is, or try adding BCAAs or protein) by hitting that Tweet button below. 5 lucky readers will win a box of Roc2O for free!