Energy and Electrolyte Drink Comparison

Proper hydration for athletes requires more than water. During exercise electrical impulses are being carried, muscles are contracting, calories are burning, heat is being produced, and sweating occurs. To keep these systems within optimum parameters, electrolytes needs to be maintained and energy stores need to be replaced—all within a fluid medium. The endurance athlete is faced with an ever-increasing variety of products to meet these nutritional needs. We have put together a comparison of 15 currently available drinks, and some thoughts to consider when selecting an exercise drink. Click here for comparison chart.

Yes, our bodies depend on fluid to do the business of exercise, but that fluid contains more than water. It contains electrolytes primarily, along with some amino acids and vitamins. Electrolytes are dissolved mineral salts that are found in the fluid both inside and outside of the cells in our bodies. The primary minerals lost are sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, and magnesium. Sodium, potassium, and chloride are key to the conduction of electrical impulses, and are involved in transportation of nutrients into cells and wastes out of cells. Many people think of bones when they think of calcium. That is true; bones are the largest reservoir of calcium in the body. However, soluble calcium in body fluid is also necessary for neuromuscular conduction, muscular contraction, inter- and intracellular messaging, and plays a key regulatory role in glycogen metabolism. Magnesium is important for proper transmission of nerve impulses, muscular contraction, and energy production. Nutrition during exercise should include these five critical electrolytes.

For athletes participating in longer duration and/or higher intensity exercise, the electrolytes lost through exercise can exceed what is available in many sports drinks. Some companies have recognized this and recommend supplementing with electrolyte tablets during exercise. Adequate amounts of electrolytes should be available in the sports drink.

From Maughan and Shirreffs, 1998. Fluid and electrolyte loss and replacement in exercise. In Oxford textbook of sports medicine, 2nd Edition. Edited by Harris, Williams, Stanish, and Micheli. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 97-113.

Carbohydrates are present in sports drinks as an energy source. Most athletes have about 2 hours worth of energy stored as muscle glycogen. Carbohydrates consumed during exercise spare muscle glycogen stores and delay the onset of fatigue during exercise. Carbohydrates from multiple sources make use of multiple absorption systems, and therefore allow more energy to be absorbed by the small intestine. Higher Glycemic Index carbohydrates are absorbed faster. The following is a list of carbohydrate sources from highest to lowest glycemic index:

Maltose>Glucose or glucose polymers (maltodextrin)> Sucrose>Honey>Lactose>Galactose>Fructose

The concentration of the carbohydrate solution is also important. Too much or too little carbohydrate can delay gastric emptying and impair the absorption of both carbohydrates and fluid. The optimal absorption of carbohydrates and fluid has been shown to occur in a 6-8% carbohydrate solution.

Should an athlete use a sports drink with protein? While there is evidence to suggest that protein consumed during exercise improves time to exhaustion and decreases muscle damage, these benefits may be from the amino acids that make up the proteins consumed in these studies. These same benefits are supported by literature for amino acids consumed during exercise. The most critical amino acids for exercise are glutamine and the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). The branched chain amino acids are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. When choosing a sports drink with whole proteins versus amino acids, consider that whole proteins are harder to digest, are absorbed slower in the intestines, do not dissolve easily in the water bottle, and may not taste good during exercise.

Finally, the taste of the sports drink (which is personal preference) can influence its effectiveness. Drinks that taste better are more readily consumed.

Comparison Chart

20 replies
  1. abidan
    abidan says:

    What carb source would you recomend a person under a low glicemic carb intake. In other words, someone following the zone diet cause of choice or a diabetic problem.
    thanks ahead!

  2. Robert Kunz MS
    Robert Kunz MS says:

    Thank you for your inquiry for low glycemic carbohydrates. Your best source is fructose, which is a simple sugar yet one of the lowest glycemic available. If you are attempting to train and race you may have great difficulty focusing only on fructose or the Zone diet or other low glycemic carbohydrates as all of this simply takes too long to get absorbed. While exercising your goal for consuming carbohydrates is to absorb them quickly so you are not using your stored carbohydrates. This extends your endurance and allows you to maintain a high pace without ‘bonking’. Do understand that diabetics can use high glycemic carbohydrates effectively DURING exercise, though we highly recommend you do this under the supervision of your doctor so you can effectively monitor your blood sugar.

  3. abidan
    abidan says:

    So you would say it wont affect your insulin levels if you take these high glycemic carbs during excercise?
    Im planning on consuming these only on my long runs, which is once a week when i run 15 to 25 miles.

  4. Jeff Rocco
    Jeff Rocco says:

    Are you currently an insulin dependent diabetic? Do you use an insulin pump? I would recommend using higher glycemic carbohydrates during exercise. Every case is different, but I do have in cycling with Type I Diabetics. My friend Brian uses an insulin pump, what worked for him was to check blood sugar before, then remove the pump and use high glycemic index carbohydrates for fuel according to effort. If the exercise effort is longer than 2 hours, check blood sugar again during. Control glucose either with physical output or adding more high glycemic fuel. Check glucose after execise and continue usual program.

    Higher glycemic carbohydrates during exercise may be a better idea because they are absorbed and utilized rapidly. Slowly absorbed carbohydrates may have the untoward effect of continuing to be absorbed after exercise, and cause a spike in blood glucose later.

    A heart rate monitor that calculates calories consumed based on height and weight can be helpful to judge your effort and the amount of fuel required. Try to replace about half of your calories during execise. As an example, yesterday I ran 17 miles on the trail with 3000′ of elevation gained. This effort took about 3 hours and 20 minutes. I fueled with 1300 calories and expended 3200 calories. Fuel sources were EFS bar, liquid shot, and EFS drink. Hope this helps.

  5. Brian Salomon
    Brian Salomon says:

    This article appears to be well researched, is well written, easily understood and the author is an Md who has nothing to sell so I trust this information more than others. I want to thank Dr Rocco and I have some questions.

    I am using Cytomax and it has no chlorine so I searched for a chlorine supplement and found magnesium and sodium chlorine supplements.

    Which of these chlorines am I after, or is there another chlorine?

  6. Jeff Rocco
    Jeff Rocco says:

    When you say Chlorine, I think you are referring to Chloride which is the negatively charged ion in mineral salts. The label on many drinks may not report the Chloride content, but Chloride is always present. Usually Chloride comes along with sodium–Sodium Chloride. Sodium Chloride is table salt. Sodium content in Cytomax is low and Magnesium content is not present. Supplementing with additional NaCl would be a good idea. Sea salt may be a good additive, as it is primarily NaCl, but also has Magnesium and other trace elements. I use Sea Salt when sodium loading for events in hot weather. See discussion of Sodium loading here

  7. Denny
    Denny says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for the great info on recovery drinks. I have some questions re proteins. I see that the new EFS formulation contains free form amino acids, which is not found in Ultragen. Ultragen, OTOH, contains whey protein. Brendan Brazier recommends that a recovery drink NOT contain whey, although I’m not sure why. Any thoughts on why one would not want whey in their recovery drink? Would free form amino acids be better than whey in a recovery drink?



  8. Robert Kunz MS
    Robert Kunz MS says:

    Ultragen actually contains a combination of amino acids derived from whey protein and free form amino acids. The key was to assure that for recovery Ultragen delivered a clinically effective 6g glutamine and 4.5g BCAA’s. Because Ultragen uses high quality whey protein isolate and hydrolyzed whey protein, speed of digestion is not compromised, meaning that Ultragen and the protein will get absorbed in the critical 30 minute glycogen window.

    A recovery drink should absolutely contain Whey. Whey protein scores the highest for a number of different protein quality scores including BV,PER, Amino Acid Score and PDCAAS.

    I am not sure what Brendan Brazier bases his recommendation on, but would be interested to know what it is and what evidence he has to support his claim.

  9. Denny
    Denny says:


    Thanks for the info. The only reason I can think of for Brendan to recommend no whey is because it’s dairy based, making it un-vegan. Unfortunately, his website doesn’t show a way of contacting him, nor does he have a blog.


  10. Tom Keane
    Tom Keane says:

    Have you updated the comparison chart lately? The Cytomax canisters I have at home show electrolytes not listed in your chart. Maybe they’ve improved their formula? Also, I use Clif drink and I’m curious how that compares. Thanks much!

  11. Colleen
    Colleen says:

    When I click on the link listed above for the new and accurate chart, I get a “Whoops, Our Bad” message saying the link is outdated.

    I’d really like to see the most updated comparison of the products.
    Any suggestions?


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  3. […] the intensity of training, the individual and the pre/during and post workout nutrition. [See Energy and Electrolyte Drink Comparison for nutritional considerations during training.} Work is done during training, and almost every […]

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