Carbohydrate vs. Electrolyte Replacement For Athletes: A Guide For Athletes

July 14, 2015

The following is a excerpt from a publication titled: "Analyzing Sports Drinks: Carbohydrate or Electrolyte Replacement", by sports nutritionist, Nina Anderson (SPN) of Safe Goods Publishing. For additional information on this topic, visit our website to reference the full publication.

Sports drinks are everywhere today, being consumed in the workplace, at home, and in the car as well as before, during, and after exercise. They are outperforming other beverage segments as more choices are being offered each day.

Electrolyte Replacement Drinks Versus Carbohydrate Replacement Drinks

Several types of sports drinks are on the market: a) electrolyte replacement drinks, b) car- bohydrate replacement drinks, c) combination drinks of electrolytes and carbohydrates d) alkalizing waters. While there may be a place for all within the sports arena, on closer examination, the drinks are used for completely different purposes.

Electrolyte replacement drinks are designed to replace the fluids (water) and electrolytes (sodium, potassium, chromium, manganese, etc.) lost during exercise. Carbohydrate drinks are the acceptable choice for instant energy during strenuous exercise and muscle recovery afterwards. Many carbohydrate drinks may also include electrolytes. 

Is That Sports Drink Right For YOU?

Manufacturers have come to the rescue with many flavored and sweetened sports drinks, but are they all the same? These include unsweetened electrolyte replacement drinks, carbohydrate-electrolyte drinks, carbohydrate and protein drinks, and functional fluids (nutrients added such as vitamins or herbs).

Many drinks include high-caloric sugars (glucose, fructose, maltodextrin, cereal starches) as carbohydrates. These are not recommended for dieters or diabetics and may not be beneficial in electrolyte drinks because the added sugar needs to be broken down by the digestive system thus delaying electrolyte absorption. Sports drinks that contain not only water, but also sodium and carbohydrates, do not quench thirst as quickly as water does. When your body wants water, it wants it immediately, and carbohydrates may actually interfere with water absorption.

For fast electrolyte replacement it is best to take pure water from a good source (filtered tap water, bottled water, spring water) and add a proper ratio of absorbable electrolyte-forming minerals. 

Sports Drinks With Electrolytes Help Replace Salts Lost Due To Sweat

Sports drinks that include sodium and potassium as electrolyte-forming minerals are primarily included to replace the “salts” removed from the body by sweat during heavy exercise. Sodium, in amounts between 500-700 milligrams per liter, is recommended for prolonged exercise because it may enhance palatability and the drive to drink, therefore increasing the amount of fluid consumed. Most drinks do not contain this level of sodium. Therefore, replacement may be necessary for those who are vigorously working their muscles.

Look for drinks that include sodium in bicarbonate form as these may actually help to counteract the buildup of lactic acid in the blood during heavy exercise. Several studies reported runners using 0.3 gm/kg of sodium bicarbonate with water over a 2 to 3 hour period when competing in 400-800 meter events, thereby improving their times by several seconds. As in all supplementation, use moderation. Smaller amounts of sodium bicarbonate may be beneficial, but loading up with large quantities requires exploiting a challenging energy need and, when taken in excess, may cause diarrhea. 

Sports Drinks With Carbohydrate Replacement

A major part of the sports drink market is geared towards carbohydrate drinks. Carbohydrates are the considered the principal dietary source of energy. 

There is no absolute requirement for dietary carbohydrates, although the brain, red blood cells, and some cells in the kidneys use glucose as a preferred source of energy. The need for carbohydrate ingestion before, during, and after exercise has been obtained from athletic performance studies.  Almost everyone agrees that carbohydrate feeding will improve performance in endurance events of moderate intensities over two hours. In practice, athletes are instructed to drink 6-12 oz. of a carbohydrate drink immediately prior to beginning strenuous activity, and continue with additional “dosages” during the exercise (to reduce fatigue) and after (as muscle glucose replacement).

Studies from sports teams show that the intake of carbohydrates is derived from both food and from sports drinks. According to the International Sports Science Association, pre-exercise, exercise, and post-exercise carbohydrate ingestion needs to include fluid and electrolyte requirements. The pre-exercise meal is ideally high in carbohydrates, low in protein, fat, and sugar, and eaten about three hours prior to exercise. This is important because it take this long for the stomach to empty and glucose to enter the bloodstream. Consuming sugar immediately before exercise can increase the risk of GI distress in the form of cramps, nausea, diarrhea, and bloating. 

Replacing the glycogen lost from muscles in the first 2 hours after exercise is the primary usage for carbohydrates during heavy exercise. Glucose and sucrose are the carbohydrates of choice and considered twice as effective as fructose in restoring muscle glycogen. However, the role of adequate glycogen resources in preventing muscle cramps is speculative and still being debated.

To read more on this topic, visit for the full publication on the sports drinks for athletes.

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