Exercise is important for good health, and so is giving your body the fuel and replenishment it needs as you sweat your way through a lengthy cardio workout. That’s why sports drinks are so popular with runners and other athletes.
But is your sports drink of choice an effective endurance aid? According to one recent study, you might be better off just downing a bottle of ordinary sugar water.
Researchers at the University of Bath in England conducted an experiment in which 14 long distance cyclists exercised after consuming glucose-based sports drinks, water with sucrose (good ol’ table sugar), and plain water. They found that while ingesting both sucrose and glucose helped prevent a decline in liver glycogen, which helps you maintain stable blood sugar levels during endurance exercise, sucrose yielded the best results.
“We found that the exercise felt easier, and the gut comfort of the cyclists was better, when they ingested sucrose compared to glucose,” explained lead researcher Dr. Javier Gonzalez.
Many sports drinks contain glucose, or a mixture of glucose and fructose, although some are sucrose-based. Molecules of sucrose are actually made up of linked molecules of glucose and fructose, offering a combination of the two that may be more easily absorbed by the gut—and therefore more readily accessible to athletes as fuel.
Based on the study, which has been published by the American Journal of Physiology—Endocrinology & Metabolism, Gonzalez ventures that “when your goal is to maximize carbohydrate availability, sucrose is probably a better source of carbohydrate to ingest than glucose.”
It’s important to keep in mind that a study conducted on such a small number of people (all of them serious cyclists) is by no means definitive. Furthermore, many sports drinks contain electrolytes, in addition to simple carbohydrates, which can also factor into athletic performance.
“When your goal is to maximize carbohydrate availability, sucrose is probably a better source of carbohydrate to ingest than glucose.”
Still, if you’d rather take this information with a spoonful of sugar than a grain of salt, the researchers behind the study recommend sipping some sugar water when exercising for a period of at least two and a half hours. According to the scientists, you should consume up to 90 grams of sugar—diluted at a ratio of about two teaspoons of sugar per 100 mL of water—per hour for optimal performance.