I was 3 miles into the run of my first 70.3 triathlon when I bonked. As a former marathon runner, I had hit the infamous “wall” at mile 20 before and experienced the pain of the last 6.2 miles of the marathon. This was different. I had already been out there for over 4 hours and I still had 10 miles to run. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. Somehow I did. It was probably the longest, most painful 10 miles I have run in my life. And I never wanted it to happen again.
After the race, I evaluated everything. It wasn’t my training. I had put in the time and I felt good about my fitness level. It had to be nutrition. Had I taken in enough fuel for energy, enough fluids and electrolytes to stay hydrated? Fuel-yes. Fluids-definitely not. I was dehydrated by the time I had gotten to the run and instant recovery was not possible. I had to be smarter next time.
I began researching hydration drinks, how they worked, the differences in brands, and which ones would work best for me. As a professional chemist, I could go into complex explanations of body chemistry that would bore even me, so I won’t. Simply put, when we exercise we sweat, and when we sweat our bodies lose water and salts (electrolytes). Both are essential for our muscles to function properly during exercise. As we sweat out the water and salts, we have to replace them. Hydration drinks do that. As a bonus, most provide some fuel (typically carbohydrates).
I tried several products and learned more about them. I limited my research and use to the powder mixes. This review does not cover every product; it is limited to the two that worked best for me (Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration Mix and GU Electrolyte Brew), and a comparison to the most common “sports drink” (Gatorade). I should also mention that I often use energy gels and other fuel sources during my long rides and runs, which are not included in this review. Look for this in a future post. Disclaimer: I am not sponsored by anyone and my review is based on research and my personal experiences with the products.
What’s in the stuff?
Carbohydrate is a broad class of chemicals most commonly known as “sugars.” They can come in a variety of forms from simple sugars (e.g. fructose, sucrose, dextrose) to complex sugars (e.g. maltodextrin). From the table below, we can see that each brand of hydration drink uses a slightly different carbohydrate mix. The GU product uses a mix of simple and complex sugars whereas the Skratch and Gatorade products use only simple sugars. The theory behind using a complex sugar is that it is more sustainable (you don’t burn it so quickly). Note: typically when something is labeled as “sugar” it is usually sucrose (common table sugar), so my assumption is that the two Gatorade products are using the same sugar mix (sucrose and dextrose). I like the Skratch Labs product because it uses all natural ingredients. Cane sugar is a natural source of sucrose. Common table sugar is usually processed.
Dextrose is a sugar commonly used in IV bag formulations. One critical aspect of hydration is uptake-how much fluid the body absorbs versus how much passes straight through. A simple sugar such as dextrose, along with sodium, helps the body absorb fluid.
Electrolytes are the salts that our bodies use to maintain proper muscle function (among other things). Salts of sodium and potassium are important electrolytes, and that is why you see them as the most common ingredients in most hydration mixes. In the ingredient lists of the four products reviewed, the sodium is from sodium citrate (a common sodium salt) in all products. There is a difference in potassium sources in the Gatorade products as compared to Skratch and GU. This may be one factor in how individuals absorb and digest the mixes. The products designed for endurance typically have more sodium and potassium than the common Gatorade (not the endurance formula).
The only major difference I could see in the two Gatorade products is that the endurance mix has more sodium and potassium. The Gatorade website says “more carbs, calories, and electrolytes…” however, I did not see a difference in carbs and calories in the labels that I reviewed for the powder mixes.
I mentioned that Skratch uses all natural ingredients, which includes real fruit (oranges in this example). Gatorade has additives including food dyes for color. If you are a fan of fewer added artificial ingredients, Skratch is the way to go.
|Product||Exercise Hydration Mix (Orange)||Electrolyte Brew (Orange)||G Series Thirst Quencher (Lemon Lime)||Endurance Formula Thirst Quencher (Orange)|
|Amount of powder (liquid equivalent)||24 g (16 oz)||19 g (16 oz)||23 g (12 oz)||24 g (12 oz)|
|Total Carbs||20 g||18 g||21 g||21 g|
|Sodium||360 mg||250 mg||150 mg||290 mg|
|Potassium||40 mg||30 mg||45 mg||140 mg|
|Ingredients||cane sugar, dextrose, sodium citrate, citric acid, oranges, magnesium lactate, calcium citrate, potassium citrate, ascorbic acid (vitamin C)||maltodextrin, fructose, sodium citrate, citric Acid, natural flavor, potassium citrate, annatto (for color)||sucrose, dextrose, citric acid, natural flavor, salt, sodium citrate, monopotassium phosphate, calcium silicate, modified food starch, yellow 6||sugar, dextrose, citric acid, sodium citrate, monopotassium phosphate, natural flavor, salt calcium lactate, calcium silicate, yellow 6, magnesium oxide|
The biggest complaints about many sports drinks are taste and/or the ability to digest them. When I used to drink Gatorade, I diluted it by half to cut the sweetness and allow me to digest it over a long ride. Notice that the serving size for the Gatorade products is 12 ounces whereas the comparable serving to get roughly the same amount of carbs, calories, and salts for the Skratch and GU products is 16 ounces. The Gatorade is more concentrated so you are getting the same ingredients, just less fluid. This likely contributes to the “sweetness” of Gatorade. Another factor is the type of sugar used. For the GU product, the combination of maltodextrin and fructose, and the absence of sucrose, provides a less sweet taste. Cane sugar, dextrose, and the use of only natural flavors provides a smooth combination of flavor and sweetness in the Skratch product. I found both the GU and Skratch products easy to drink and digest.
What works for me?
After my first 70.3 triathlon debacle and before I discovered Skratch Labs, I experimented with the GU electrolyte brew. I found it tasty (my favorite is the blueberry pomegranate) and it kept me hydrated on my long training rides during the Texas heat. I used it in my second 70.3 event on the bike portion and I had no problems finishing my run strong. The downside for me is that I don’t seem to absorb the fluids that well with the GU Brew and I have to make regular bio-break stops (twice during the race, once midway through the bike). I just read that GU has slightly modified its formula from the product that I have been using. I haven’t tried the new formula.
The Crew Chief introduced me to Skratch Labs hydration mix a couple of months ago and I have been using it during long training activities. I have to say the stuff is amazing. The taste is great (I am a fan of the orange), and I have absolutely no digestive problems. I have used it on long rides and runs, and it keeps me strong and hydrated. I also seem to absorb the fluids better and I need fewer pit stops during my activities. I am anxious to give it a go in my next race.
Skratch Labs is currently my go-to hydration drink mix and I recommend it. The Scratch Labs website is excellent and it contains a lot of good nutritional information and a very clear explanation of their approach. The Average Cyclist also did a nice review recently on the Scratch exercise hydration mix.