What’s the best sports drink for you? One you like and will drink! And also provides the calories you need.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends consuming 25 to 60 grams (1 to 2 ounces or 100 to 240 calories) of carbs per hour after the first hour of exercise. This is sufficient for several hours of exercise. Here’s the cost per 100 calories of popular sports drinks:
Cost per 100 calories
|Gatorade (bulk from Amazon)||$ 0.19|
|Gatorade bottle||$ 0.83|
|Powerade bottle||$ 0.99|
|HEED powder||$ 0.99|
|Skratch Sport Hydration Mix powder||$ 1.38|
Drinking one of these on your rides costs far less than your bike so personal preference is important. I’m using these as examples— there are others — and I’m not recommending any one of them.
Riding in the heat you sweat and your sports drink should also provide the electrolytes you need. Sodium is the primary electrolyte in sweat. 1 liter of sweat contains approximately 800 milligrams (mg) of sodium. The exact amounts vary by individual depending on fitness, heat adaptation and other factors. Potassium, calcium and magnesium are present in much smaller amounts and you usually get enough of these from your daily diet.
Electrolytes in a liter of sweat
|Per Liter (quart)||Daily Recommended Intake (DRI) in your diet|
|Sodium||800 mg||1,500 mg|
|Potassium||115 mg||4,700 mg|
|Calcium||40 mg||1,000 mg|
|Magnesium||19 mg||Males 420 mg Females 320 mg|
ACSM recommends 500 – 700 milligrams (mg) of sodium per liter. [Exercise and fluid replacement] A large water bottle is 20 fl. oz. / 0.6 liter
Sodium per liter
|HEED *||120 mg|
|Skratch Sport Hydration Mix||800 mg|
* In hot conditions Hammer Nutrition recommends adding Endurolytes to HEED. One capsule of Endurolytes Extreme has 120 mg of sodium so you’d need to add three capsules per liter at $ 0.21 / capsule for a total of 480 mg / liter.
Each of my home-made sports drinks (recipes below) costs only $ 0.11 per 100 calories and meets all of the ACSM’s recommendations for calories and electrolytes.
Low Blood Sodium
“Hyponatremia occurs when the concentration of sodium in your blood is abnormally low. Sodium is an electrolyte, and it helps regulate the amount of water that’s in and around your cells.
“In hyponatremia, one or more factors — ranging from an underlying medical condition to drinking too much water — cause the sodium in your body to become diluted. When this happens, your body’s water levels rise, and your cells begin to swell. This swelling can cause many health problems, from mild to life-threatening.” [Mayo Clinic]
Drinking a sports drink with less sodium than in your blood stream still dilutes the sodium level in your blood, just not as fast. Drinking too much sports drink can also cause hyponatremia. If you like one of the first three drinks above you could add salt; however, you may not like the way it tastes.
Here’s what physicians and scientists recommend per liter:
|ACSM||500 – 700 mg||80 – 200 mg||50 – 100 grams (200 – 400 calories)|
|Institute of Medicine *||460 – 690 mg||80 – 200 mg||50 – 100 g (200 – 400 calories)|
* Fluid Replacement and Heat Stress National Institutes of Health.
Homemade Sports Drinks (HMSD)
Based on the recommendations of the ACSM and the Institute of Medicine and a sample recipe from The Cyclist’s Food Guide by Nancy Clark and Jenny Hegmann I developed three sports drinks, which are almost identical in nutritional value but have different flavors.
To make one quart (liter)
|Juice||1/3 cup (80 ml)||2/3 cup (160 ml)||2/3 cup (160 ml)|
|Sugar||12 teaspoons* (50 g)||8 teaspoons (35 g)||8 teaspoons (35 g)|
|Salt||1/4 teaspoon (1.7 g)||1/4 teaspoon (1.7 g)||scant 1/4 teaspoon (1.5 g)|
|Morton Salt Lite||1/8 teaspoon (0.8 g)|
|Water||to make 1 quart (0.95 L)||to make 1 quart (0.95 L)||to make 1 quart (0.95 L)|
* 1 teaspoon = 1 level teaspoon. Scant means slightly less than the full amount.
One quart (liter) meets the ACSM recommendations:
- Sodium 600 mg
- Potassium 140 – 180 mg
- Carbs 40 – 56 gm (160 – 224 calories)
For juice I used natural juice with no added sugar. If your juice has added sugar, then decrease the amount of sugar you put in the drink. The goal is about 50-55 grams of carbohydrate (200-220 calories) per quart from the combination of the fruit juice and the added sugar. You can also substitute four teaspoons (20 ml) of frozen orange juice concentrate for the orange drink.
For sugar, you can use sucrose (table sugar), glucose or maltodextrin (a starch). Maltodextrin doesn’t taste as sweet. If you want more carbohydrates, you could add sugar. One teaspoon (5 ml/4 g) of sugar contains 16 calories.
Elizabeth is a long-time friend and client of mine. She turned 75 in 2019 and rode 7,500 miles that year! You can read about her 7,500-mile year here. She’s also set age-group records in 12-hour races. She loves my home-made sports drink (HMSD). Here’s why:
“1. It’s proven to be a key ingredient in keeping me nourished and hydrated on multi-hour rides and races both outdoors and indoors. Half a bottle of it [100 calories] and half a bottle of water an hour have been a good prescription for keeping me well fueled for a continuous, strong effort and to avoid bonking. It readily provides the supply of electrolytes and calories I need.
“2. It’s easy to prepare and doesn’t cost much. I can control the amount of sugar and salt I’m ingesting rather than using commercial drinks, with who knows what other mysterious and unnecessary ingredients.
“3. For preparation, I mix enough for several bottles and keep them in my refrigerator or on ice during a race. I often wear a hydration pack for water and carry two bottles of HMSD, giving me four hours of support. And it is a must on particularly warm and humid days even for shorter rides. I haven’t tried mixing it up en route if I run out of a prepared supply. Possibly mixing portions of a small bottle of apple or orange juice from a convenience store with water and packets of sugar and salt would do the trick. Not perfect but better than not.
“4. Friends have been intrigued with my endurance capability (the longer the ride the better), often better than faster riders. I credit that to eating consistently while moving, drinking water and my supply of HMSD.”
We’re each an experiment of one. My orange, apple or lemonade HMSD may not work for you. You may prefer a commercial product. Read the label of any sports drink you’re considering, and compare its makeup to the ACSM recommendations. Drink a fluid containing both carbohydrates and electrolytes (or if you prefer plain water, then also eat carbohydrates containing electrolytes). Experiment to determine which beverage(s) taste good to you and sit well in your stomach.
- Bicycling in the Heat 101
- Heat Tolerance and Aging
- Cycling in Low and High Humidity
- Tactical Tips for Riding in the Heat
- 12 Myths about Hydration
I researched what riders consume before, during and after a race and discussed the results with cycling nutrition experts. We all require energy and replenishment of lost minerals and nutrients when we ride. Eating and drinking like the pros offers us the same nutritional benefits, which you can customize to your own needs – typically at a fraction of the cost of commercial sports food and drink, if you choose to make our own. I worked with a professor of nutrition and an expert on hydration and electrolytes (both experts are cyclists) in creating a dozen recipes for sports drinks, gels and food. They’re easy to make, with known, unprocessed ingredients, and can be tailored to your specific taste and needs.
The 15-page Eating and Drinking Like the Pros is just $4.99.
I combine the best of current research with 45 years of riding experience to teach you proper sports nutrition. Initially written for 100K and longer rides, the lessons apply to all endurance riders. Energy needs vary by rider and type of riding and not all fuels are equally effective. This article will teach you:
- Personal Energy Need: how to estimate how many calories you are burning per hour at different speeds.
- Types of Fuel: how carbohydrates, fat and protein contribute to your energy needs.
- Training Implications: what are the training implications of your personal energy needs, your cycling goals and the types of fuel.
- What to Eat: what you should eat including quantity per hour, types of fuel, complex vs. simple carbohydrates, sports products vs. grocery store food and sample foods.
- Hydration: how much to drink both to avoid dehydration and to avoid hyponatremia (diluting your blood sodium).
- Electrolytes: what you need and a comparison of sources.
- Experiment of One: we are each an experiment of one, how to test and refine your nutrition.
- Before and After Events: what to eat pre-event for strong performance and post-event for optimum recovery.
- 24-Hour and Beyond: how to maintain energy over a 24-hour or longer event.
- Myths: common popular myths about sports nutrition.
The 17-page Nutrition for 100K and Beyond is $4.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.