Choosing a drink for Ironman

Most Ironman competitors will drink the official race beverage, but many competitors will find some products worse on their stomach than others. This can be a problem and in this article I hope to point to a few possible solutions and compare some of the most common energy drinks that are currently out there.

Ironman races and their drinks in 2012.

The following races are examples from America, Europe and Africa:

  • South Africa - Coca Cola's Powerade in 2010, Coke and water.
  • Lanzarote - Powerbar's Ironman Perform, Coke and water.
  • Regensburg - Powerbar Isoactive, Coke and water.
  • Nice - Powerbar Isoactive, Coke and water.
  • Austria - Powerbar Isoactive, Coke and water.
  • Frankfurt - Powerbar Isoactive, Coke and water.
  • Switzerland - Powerbar's Ironman Perform, Cola and Red Bull on the run and water.
  • UK - Gatorade Thirst Quencher, Pepsi on the run and water.
  • Wales - Gatorade and water?
  • St George - Powerbar's Ironman Perform and water.
  • Lake Placid - Powerbar's Ironman Perform, Cola and water.
  • Canada - Powerbar's Ironman Perform, Cola and water.
  • HawaiiPowerbar's Ironman Perform, Cola and water.
  • Florida - Powerbar's Ironman Perform, Cola and water.

Alternatives to using the official race drinks.

As you can see the selection is limited as only a few drinks companies have the resources to cut the big deals with the big races. It is rather noticeable that Powerbar have most of this market sewn up! If you want to use another drink out on the course your options are limited and you will have to plan carefully. Your main options are:

  • Drink water and add salt tablets to it. Use gels and bars to provide most of your carbohydrate fuel.
  • Load up your bike with as many bottles of your favourite drink as possible. Any extra fluid you will have as water with gels.
  • Use your special needs bag to provide extra supplies of your favourite drink. This could enable you to use your favourite drink all the way round the bike course.

Why would you use an alternative drink to that provided?

The race drink could be unsuitable for a number of reasons.

Firstly, many people find some drinks far more palatable than others. This helps them stay better hydrated.

Secondly, the drink may be formulated in a way that is not optimal for the race conditions. A case in point is that Powerbar Ironman Perform and Powerbar Isoactive are both some of the most salty drinks you will find. This may work well for you fine if you are salty sweater or if conditions are hot and humid, but for some people the salt may not be needed. If the salt stays in the gastrointestinal tract, it causes water to leach into it and can lead to diarrhoea, vomiting and other gastrointestinal problems.

Thirdly, your stomach may react with the official drink. It could be an artificial additive such as a flavouring or sweetener, the saltiness, the fructose content or the solution strength that irritates your stomach. If your stomach gets irritated by the official drink you really need to ensure you can use an alternative so that you have a successful race. Let's face it Ironman racing is not cheap. For more about the importance of salt in Ironman see here.

The upshot of all this Powerbar/Gatorade domination, is that to use your own drink, you need to carry more weight in the form of fluid round with you. Typically on your bike leg you could take 3 bottles from the start and replace with another 3 bottles at half way via the special needs bag (if there is one). If you use the official race sports drink that is provided you'll probably only ever need to carry one bottle, unless you like to have a sports drink and water at the same time. On the run the usage of sports drinks is not usually so great, and so hopefully you will not be disadvantaged. If you do want to use your own sports drink you will find yourself carrying a lot of extra weight around, just when you don't need it.

The pros and cons of different popular drinks.

Ultimately you must try out the drinks in training and at similar pace to Ironman race intensity in order to be sure you can stomach them. This is the final test. There is no point in racing with a drink that doesn't sut you. Nevertheless it is worth also knowing what is in the different drinks. The ingredients list and relative amount of different nutrients tells you a number of things including:

  • How effective for a good performance a drink is. The relative amounts of glucose, fructose and salt can all be important here. The amount of salt should be a match for the saltiness of your sweat, especially if the temperatures are high. Fructose can cause stomach upset in some competitors. If this is the case it is best avoided, however for those who have no problems it may well increase performance levels.
  • If the drink contains undesirable additives. Many people want to avoid artificial sweeteners. Aspartame is an example of one sweetener that can cause side effects in some people and is associated in studies with a number of adverse health outcomes. In my opinion there should be no need to use sweeteners other than sugar.

Making up your own drinks.

Don't forget you can dispense with commercial drinks altogether and make up your own drinks solution using water, sugar, salt and some flavouring. Alternatively use a fruit juice, watered down to be isotonic and then add salt. When doing this bear in mind that isotonic solutions are generally around 6% in strength. What this means in practice is that for a 500ml bottle you would use 50mg of powder for a 10% strength and 30mg for isotonic strength. You would typically add 1/2 a gram of salt to this, which is a pinch of salt. To give you an idea 1 heaped teaspoon contains about 5g.

Comparing commercial drinks.

I've listed below some of the ingredients in popular commercial drinks. The amounts are standardised where possible to 100grams of powder. That way you can compare sodium (Na) content and well as other key ingredients such as fructose. I've abbreviated common minerals that are added by their atomic symbols so Potassium (K), Chloride (Ch), Magnesium (Mg) and Calcium (Ca).

When it comes to ingredients other than salt (sodium), carbohydrates (glucose, dextrose, fructose), and caffeine the truth is their role is pretty unimportant unless they upset your stomach. Added minerals such as Mg, Ch, Ca and K are unlikely to affect race performance. You should top up on these minerals during your recovery period. The same applies to B vitamins. Turmeric is good for your colon, but won't make you go faster, and beetroot juice powder may possibly, but more studies need to be done on its use in Ironman. The ratio of fructose to glucose may be significant, and between 20-30% fructose could improve performance in those who are not fructose intolerant. Likewise there may be a small performance improvement due to the presence of protein or BCAAs (branch chain amino acids) in drinks formulations. However protein and specific amino acids are more likely to improve recovery time than improve race performance.

POWDERS

  • Powerbar Perform: (100g) 388kcal, carbs 94g, (sugars (fructose/ glucose) 60g). Na 1055mg, K, Ch, Mg, Ca also. INGREDIENTS: C2max energy blend (Maltodextrin, Fructose, Dextrose, minerals (citric acid, trisodium citrate, natural flavour, salt, magnesium citrates, potassium citrate, turmeric).
  • Powerbar isoactive (100g) 345kcal, carbs 86g, (sugars (fructose/ glucose) 60g). Na 1260mg, K 327mg, Ch, Mg, Ca also. INGREDIENTS: Glucose, fructose, maltodextrin, minerals (sodium citrate, sodium chloride, calcium gluconate, potassium chloride, magnesium citrates, calcium lactate), citric acid, flavouring (with milk), safflower concentrate, anticaking agent (silicon dioxide), beetroot juice powder.
  • SIS PSP 22 energy (100g) 371kcal, carb 99g (sugars (fructose) 6g). Has 7% carbs as sugars. Could be less efficient than High 5 in some tests (see below) due to sugars content. Contains aspartame unless using the neutral flavour.
  • High 5 energy source (100g) 390kcal, carb 97g (sugars (fructose 33g), Na 690mg, K 180mg. Their neutral flavour contains carbs as maltodextrin with little sugar. Flavoured versions have up to 30% carbs as sugars. Claims to be 6.5% more effective than PSP 22.
  • Infinit Ride (100g) 390kcal, carbs 91.5g (sugars 28g), protein 5.7g, Na 480mg, K 138g, Ca 39g, Mg 31g. Ingerdients: maltodextrin, dextrose, sucrose and whey protein which is supposedly good for BCAAs.
  • Taut (100g) 205kcal, carbs 49g (48g sugars), Lemon Juice from Concentrate 5%, Na 700mg, (1L) Electrolytes (Trisodium Citrate, Sodium Chloride, Potassium Chloride), Natural Flavours, Vitamin E, B vitamins (Niacin, B5, B6, B12, Biotin).
  • Maximuscle viper (100g) 378kcal, carbs 86.4g, protein 8.4g of which (BCAA – 3.0g), Na 0mg, K 126g, Ca 124g, Mg 31g, Ch 186g + Taurine (most likely to calm the CNS).
  • Coca cola (1.25l) 505kcal, carb 141g (sugars xg), Na 172mg. Has up to 100% carbs as sugars. Contains 120mg caffeine (2.5 cups coffee). 11.5% concentrated as opposed to perhaps 8% on the powder mixes. Also drink water.
  • Lucozade Sport (1.25l) 350kcal, carb 80g (sugars (glucose based) 44g). Has up to 55% carbs as sugars. B3, B5, B6, B12 at about 40% rda. Na 625mg, K 110mg, Ca 25mg. Its concentration is about 6.5%? Almost isotonic. Aspartame + Acesulfame K.
  • Powerade (1.25l) 292kcal, carb 78g (sugars 78g (HFC 66g)), Na 271mg, K 132mg, some B vits at 10% rda. Part of Coca Cola group. (Diet version contains sucralose and Acesulfame K).
  • Gatorade Endurance (72g) Carb 42g (all sugars) Na 580mg, K 280mg, Note the large amount of potassium.
  • For a comparison a typical smoothie (1.25l) has carbs at 11%, Na=0. A typical fruit juice (1.25l) has carbs at 10%, Na=13mg

ENERGY/ELECTRO

These drinks are virtually all carbs with added electrolytes in significant amounts. Sugar levels vary. They are designed to ensure hydration. Nuuns has no sugars. Solutions at 10% make 1 litre.

  • SIS GO electrolyte (100g) 359kcal, carb 95g (sugars (fructose) 16g), Na 500mg, Cl- 610mg, K 150mg, Ca 56mg, Mg 12mg. Has carbs as sugars.
  • High 5 isotonic (100g) 384kcal, carb 96g (sugars (fructose) 46g), Na 1000mg, K 292mg. Has >50% carbs as sugars.
  • High 5 energy extreme (100g) 376kcal, carb 94g (sugars (fructose) 46g), Na 690mg, K 180mg Mg 120mg. Half the RDA of mg. Has >50% carbs as sugars. Has added carnitine, taurine, caffeine and choline.
  • Maxim energy drink (100g) 374kcal, carb 93g (sugars (fructose) 50g), Na 640mg, K 250mg, Mg 46mg. Vits B, C and E at c.60% rda. Has over 54% carbs as sugars.
  • Isostar (100g) 371kcal, carb 87g (sugars(sucrose,glucose), Na 860mg, K ??mg, Mg 150mg, Ca 400mg. Large amount of Ca.
  • Maximuscle Viper (100g 378kcal, carb 86g, protein 8.4g (3g BCAA), Taurine 250mg, Na 0mg, K 126mg, Mg 31mg, Ca 133mg, Cl 188mg.

ENERGY MIX

These drinks are carbs with some protein. Sugar levels vary. The protein may aid serotonin levels by providing tryptophan, otherwise I can’t see the point for racing!!

  • High 5 energy source 4:1 (100g) 388kcal, carb 77g (sugars (fructose) 28g), protein 20g, Na 690mg, K 180mg. Has over 35% carbs as sugars. Contains whey protein.