What’s not in a sports drink is almost as important as what is in it.

New research in the field of sports nutrition has elucidated the fact that most sports drinks deliver the wrong biochemical message to the body. Gatorade, the most popular sports drink, was designed to replenish fluids. Years ago, when Gatorade was invented at the University of Florida (and named after the Florida Gators), it was thought that sugar was beneficial to athletes because it provided fast energy. Researchers now know that sugar in a sports drink depletes fluids, which can be detrimental to performance.

Researcher and Professor of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, Dr. J. Brown states, “Sugar actually causes you to lose fluid.” Fluid loss is not what you need from your sports drink. Sugars and sweeteners that induce fluid loss should not be present in sports drinks, but many sports drinks contain them. It is important to know what impact a sports drink will have on long and short term sports performance. The sugars, carbohydrates, and sweeteners used in sports drinks have a direct impact on human maximum performance in the sports arena.

Sugars and Carbohydrates

All authentic sports drinks are made with carbohydrates. Those that do not contain carbohydrates cannot be considered “sports drinks” because they have no effect on blood glucose, insulin levels, and glycogen replenishment. Drinks that do not affect these important mechanisms in the body can simply be considered “soda pop.”

The connection between carbohydrate ingestion and athletic performance has only recently been established and confirms that sports drinks have a profound effect on an athlete’s ability to compete. Athletes consuming less than the required amount of carbohydrates per day will eventually experience progressive weakness, exhaustion of glycogen stores, overtraining syndrome, and catabolism (use of muscle protein for fuel). Therefore, it is essential that all sports drinks contain carbohydrates. Properly formulated sports drinks will not contain protein, as the mechanisms involved in protein metabolism are contraindicated during exercise lasting less than 3-4 hours.

Nutritional biochemists used to think that “simple sugars rapidly increase blood sugar while complex carbohydrates do not.” Clinical research has proven that this is not the case. Carbohydrate metabolism is not that simplistic. Different carbohydrates create different blood sugar responses, and blood sugar response is largely responsible for total energy output and intensity.

Sugars and starches are carbohydrates, so there are a wide variety of carbohydrates to choose from. There are more than twenty-seven sugars, carbohydrates, and sweeteners used in varying levels in sports drinks. Each has a different glycemic response and therefore causes a different chemical response in the body.

All carbohydrates elicit a glycemic response. The glycemic index of a food or drink measures the rise in blood glucose above basal levels after consuming 50 grams of a specific carbohydrate. So, the glycemic response of a food or drink will tell you the impact that food or drink will have on blood sugar levels. During training and athletic events, if the glycemic response is not planned variations of performance-failure are a given.

Sugars, carbohydrates, and sweeteners that can cause reduced performance are those highest in the glycemic index. They include maltodextrins, glucose polymers, sucrose, glucose, honey, high fructose corn syrup, and most pure fruit juices. Sports drinks made with high glycemic fruit juices can cause reactive hypoglycemic, which greatly reduces performance. The type and amount of fruit juice used in a drink determines its overall glycemic response. Juices that overstimulate blood glucose and insulin (high glycemic) are contraindicated for most athletic events.

In sports drinks, carbohydrates that have a low glycemic response are superior to those with a moderate or high glycemic response because low glycemic sports drinks enhance stomach emptying and preferentially restores liver glycogen. Sugars and carbohydrates made from low glycemic fruit sugars, like fructose (at low levels), Trutina Dulcem, and Ki-Sweet, do not cause fluid loss, and can be used in any drink.

Carbohydrates and Performance

High glycemic sports drinks have gained popularity due to their ability to instill “false sugar rushes” and quick glycemic and insulin highs. The problem is that the initial high is followed by reactive hypoglycemia which causes reduced sports performance. High glycemic sports drinks can inhibit performance, while, in the majority of cases, low glycemic sports drinks enhance sports performance.

Athletes typically use high glycemic maltodextrins and glucose polymers to obtain muscle glycogen resynthesis. This is not always necessary and can be detrimental to performance. Carbohydrates with a much lower glycemic index are equally as effective in resynthesis and do not cause intense blood sugar swings as do sucrose, maltodextrins and glucose polymers. Certain sugars and carbohydrates also inhibit absorption of water, and should not be used during exercise. Your sports drink should allow for rapid stomach emptying, that is, a rate which is similar to water.

High glycemic carbohydrate like maltodextrins and glucose polymers taken prior to, or during certain athletic events (especially in a sports drink), can block Human Maximum Performance in the athlete. For example: sucrose, maltodextrins and glucose polymers are much too efficient in adding extra body fat, and can actually halt fat-burning in bodybuilders. Bodybuilders who find that they are “stuck” at a higher percent of body fat than desired need to examine their food intake. The probable cause is ingestion of too many high glycemic foods and drinks, excess protein, and improperly formulated protein powders and sports drinks, which actually prevents further loss of body fat.

Does that mean that all athletes should avoid maltodextrins and/or glucose polymers in their sports drinks? No. In certain cases, glucose is required for immediate action, but the level of glucose must be less than 5%. A single power-lift requires access to the same power supply as that of a 50-meter sprint, namely glucose. But glucose can be used by the body either immediately or burned as a fuel after conversion in the liver. The biochemistry of glucose, glycogen, insulin, muscle glycogen resynthesis and carbohydrate metabolism is extremely complicated. The athlete should not be burdened with the task of analyzing this research before selecting a sports drink. He/she should be able to easily select a sports drink which will provide him with maximum output. This requires the correct design of sports drink by scientists/formulators who have analyzed current research and incorporated this research into their sports drink. Unfortunately, the vast majority of sports drinks on the market do not reveal the glycemic response of the product, much less its metabolic response. Since that is the case, the athlete must rely on his own knowledge of what a properly formulated sports drink should contain.

There are many sports drinks on the market that claim to have “no glycemic response.” These claims are absurd, and indicate lack of substantial knowledge of the glycemic index. Unless a sports drink contains no carbohydrates or sugars, it is impossible for it to have a “zero glycemic index.” If a drink does not have any glycemic response, it is useless as a sports drink. In achieving Human Maximum Performance, the point is to target a correct glycemic response, not to eliminate a glycemic response.

Accessing Your “Power Supply”

If your body cannot deliver the long-term energy you need to run a marathon or the short-term energy required to squat 500 pounds, you are not going to be able to perform these tasks. Have you ever noticed during training that some days the weights lift easily and another day the same weights seem difficult to move? This simply means that your body does not have the ability to deliver the necessary power. This power comes from specific levels of:

 Blood sugar
 Growth hormone

Whatever you ate or drank prior to any athletic event will have a huge impact on these chemical
systems, which will affect your ability to access your power supply. These intricate systems in the body are programmed by:

1. Genetics
2. Age
3. Efficiency of Internal Systems
4. Food, Drink, and Nutrient Ingestion

You cannot change numbers 1, 2, or 3. Genetics and age are non-negotiable factors.

Efficiency of Internal Systems (#3) relates to factors specific to the individual. They include Somatotype, blood sugar regulation (hypoglycemia and diabetes), fast or slow metabolism, efficiency in absorbing nutrients, and other hard-wired mechanisms. In order to change or regulate these chemical systems within the human body, the athlete will have to work one-on-one with a physician or specialist trained in nutritional biochemistry.

Though factors 1-3 cannot be easily controlled, you can change Food, Drink, and Nutrient Ingestion. (#4). Every bite of food, and every drink consumed (even water), programs the body to react in a specific way. Since athletes have control over the selection of all foods and drinks they ingest, they can select food/drinks that increase sports performance. Human Maximum Performance involves careful selection of every nutrient ingested on a 24-hour basis. Athletes following a Human Maximum Performance program never have to make more than a 24-hour mistake. To correctly program and control these chemical systems, thereby avoiding mistakes, athletes need to understand how they work.

Controlling Chemical Systems
The pancreas secretes insulin and glucagon. Glucagon is a hormone that increases the concentration of glucose in the blood. The Delta cells of the pancreas contain somatostatin, which suppresses the release of both insulin and glucagon. High glycemic drinks trigger excessive secretion of insulin (hyperinsulinism), which can cause lowered blood sugar (hypoglycemic and reactive hypoglycemia) resulting in:

 diminished growth hormone
 severely reduced performance
 hitting-the-wall syndrome
 unacceptable glycemia (sugar or glucose in the blood)
 muscle weakness
 muscle flattening
 a myriad of other problems

Glycogenesis (formation of glycogen from carbohydrates) and glyconeogenesis (formation of glycogen from non-carbohydrates, such as fat or amino acids from protein) must be planned prior to training, exercise, or competitive events. This applies to all athletes. One way to insure correct programming of these chemical systems is selecting the correct sports drink used before and during training and athletic events. Correct chemical programming will also prevent muscle glycogen depletion. Endurance athletes should never follow a high-protein/low-carbohydrate food plan because they result in muscle glycogen depletion.