One of my athletes wrote to me today with a great question about using energy drinks — drinks of the non-athletic kind like Red Bull — in their racing and training. Today, we’ll draw a distinction here between energy drinks made for athletes (those that contain primarily sugar and electrolytes) and energy drinks made for daily consumption (those containing stimulants). But first, here’s the question:
I have tried gels and chews and it’s just not for me… I have been running with an electrolyte/ carb hydration liquid, along with water. Toward the end of my long runs, last 3-4 miles I added half redbull half water mixer….
I have been doing pretty good with this combo… What are your thoughts? Any recommendations on energy/carb drinks that i should try?
On the first part of your question, it is just fine to use liquid-based sugars rather than solids or semi-solids (chews, gels or bars). Many runners ask if they “need” to use gels or bars, but in reality most elite runners actually use liquid energy drinks. They do this both because it is faster to drink out of a bottle than try opening something in a package and because being liquids are typically absorbed more quickly. So if that’s working for you then great! Just be careful not to make the mixture too concentrated. If the concentration of sugar gets to be too high, the stomach can get touchy quickly. Note however that these elite athletes tend to train their stomachs to take higher concentrations of sugars than most of us could “stomach” (pun intended), so watch out for products made specifically for elite athletes. You may need to build up to something like that over time.
With regard to the Red Bull you’re just adding another layer of stimulation to the mix. Red Bull and most energy drinks have stimulants in them like Caffeine or Taurine. While these stimulants don’t actually give your muscles energy, they do boost your mental state and this can be important late in a run or race. Red Bull also has sugar in it (both sucrose and glucose), so you are getting more sugar energy from the drink as well. This may be important, because there are many types of sugars and changing sugars can either be helpful or harmful depending on your stomach.
A growing number of energy products made for athletes do contain caffeine for just the purposes we’re talking about here — pepping up your brain. And in fact in Ironman triathlon the aid-stations typically offer de-fizzed Coke — which is a mixture of sugar and caffeine. The bottom-line is two-fold here: first, providing mental stimulation is a positive thing late in a race. Second, your muscles can still run out of energy if they don’t get what you need, so a combination of stimulants and energy producing sugars is still a must.
If this combination is working for you then this is an option for you. However, keep in mind that on race day you most likely won’t have access to these products in aid stations so you will need to carry your own mixtures. You want to use the same fuel on race day as in practice, but all you’ll find in a typical aid station is water, an energy drink (like Gatorade) and maybe one energy gel station at about mile 20 in marathons. That’s why I always encourage people to bring their own fuel to races.
With regards to suggestions, I encourage people to try several different products — one in each workout — and see what works for them. Your digestive system is unique and will react favorably or poorly to different sugars or combinations of sugars. Try some things out and take a look at some of the newer more natural products like Honey Stinger and energy products from VEGA.
Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running-Advice.com and RUN Time