As we were talking about hydration under another thread, the topic of sugar came up, so I thought it would be good to have a separate post on the topic.
Which drink is best for workouts and events - sweetened or sugar-free electrolytes?
It depends. When doing low-intensity or short workouts and rides up to 90 minutes, you probably only need water. However, if you are doing these in the heat/summer or indoors on a trainer and you tend to sweat a lot, it is recommended that you add electrolytes. The addition of sugar in this case is optional.
For high intensity workouts (threshold and above) and longer rides (2hs or longer regardless of pace), I have found that hydration drinks that include glucose make me feel much better overall. That is because they help maintain blood sugar and along with sodium can significantly improve the transport of water into the body. Plus, the addition of natural forms of sugar in a good-quality hydration drink isn’t detrimental and adds little calories - although you need calories in those scenarios anyway!
Examples of quality hydration mixes with all natural ingredients include Skratch, Precision Hydration, and Kramp Krushers.
Here is a great article as to why sugar in hydration drinks serves a good purpose. Check out this one as well. I know they are written by the companies that make the mixes, but they are based on solid science and explain the reasons in a reader-friendly way so you don’t have to dig through scientific papers.
A word about sugar
Sugar is not a villain. Of course it’s best to avoid processed sugar, because the human body evolved to metabolize natural sugars - those found in fruits/plants. This is also why, at a basic level, artificial sweeteners are not a good idea either.
Sugar is commonly associated with weight gain. While consuming excess sugar is detrimental to our health, excess “energy” in the form of calories - regardless of the source, sugar or otherwise - is what causes weight gain. There are a lot of theories out there about food and macro combinations, etc. but the reality is quite simple… because we can’t deny the law of thermodynamics: if energy IN is higher than energy OUT, weight gain occurs.
Sure, sugar by itself is not nourishment, and consuming lots of sweet foods will make you crave more sweet foods, and yes, it’s like a drug to your brain. But used wisely, sugar helps with sports performance without causing weight gain.