What’s the difference between a sports drink and a recovery drink?

Jon Hodgkinson, founder of Real Food Function and resident nutritionist with Triathlon Coaching UK, explains the differences between a sports drink and a recovery drink and when to use each

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To understand the difference between a sports drink and a recovery drink you first need to understand the roles of each drink, and why we would consider using either of them in the first place.


Let’s start by looking a little deeper into what the role of a sports drink is…

What is a sports drink?

Sports drinks, whether pre-made in powdered or tablet form, are a combination of carbohydrates (sugars) and electrolytes (minerals).

Why use a sports drink?

The reason we use sports drinks is that we want to make sure we’re adequately fuelled and hydrated while training and competing.

The goal of a sports drink is to provide the body with optimal amounts of energy to the working muscles as quickly as possible, while helping to maintain the functions of the body that influence our performance, such as staying hydrated and being able to generate power through the muscles.

Sports drinks combine fast-acting energy in the form of carbohydrates (glucose, fructose, sucrose and maltodextrins) alongside electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium). These play key roles in muscle contraction and strength, transport of energy around the body and maintaining the right balance of water in the body to prevent dehydration.

Too little carbohydrate and you can be left with insufficient energy to perform, while too much carbohydrate in your drink can actually negatively impact the amount of water absorbed by the body.

Getting the right amounts really is a balancing act. However, sports drinks are some of the most researched drinks out there, and therefore the amount of information available to guide manufacturers when creating such drinks makes the balancing act much easier.

You tend to find that the majority of sports drinks on the market contain between 6-8% carbohydrate in varying mixtures of glucose/fructose, alongside the most common electrolytes of sodium and potassium.

Research has shown that these combinations lead to the fastest and most efficient rates of absorption of energy and water from the intestine into your blood stream, keeping you functioning efficiently during your event.

When should I use a sports drink?

As a general rule for any training session or event lasting less than 60 minutes, just water should suffice.

For training sessions and events lasting more than 60 minutes, using a sports drink is effective for replenishing the electrolytes lost through sweat and helping to keep energy levels topped up.

It is often best practice to drink based on your intuition and thirst instead of getting too bogged down in trying to time the specifics of when to consume your sports drink.

Now let’s explore why you might want to consider recovery drinks…

What is a recovery drink?

Recovery drinks combine protein and carbohydrate, often in the form of pre-made shakes or powders that can be easily mixed with water or milk/non-dairy alternatives.

Why use a recovery drink?

There are two main reasons for using a recovery drink after your training session or triathlon event.

The first is that you need to start the process of rebuilding your energy reserves, which have most likely been depleted during the session; this is done through carbohydrates (sugars).

The second reason is that you need to start the process of muscular recovery and repair due to the stress that has been created through your session; this is done through using proteins which, in their simplest form, are the building blocks of your muscles.

Research has shown time and time again that endurance-based sport leads to the breakdown and damage of muscle tissue due to the stress which is placed on your body. The level of stress is increased more so for weight-bearing activities, such as running, as the body has to work hard to accelerate and decelerate while also dealing with impact.

After your training session or event your body can require a higher amount of protein to help with the rebuilding of muscle tissue for up to the next 24 hours. Recommendations on exactly how much protein you need to consume varies from study to study, but more recently it seems that the ideal amount required is between 1.6-1.8g protein per kg of bodyweight. Attempting to consume this amount of protein in your main meals is not very easy to do without some clear planning and thought.

However, protein supplements do help to top up your required daily intake and are also an easy-to-incorporate option, making them a logical consideration, especially when your training load starts to pick up.

A typical protein powder, whether whey or vegan, will contain between 18-25g protein per serving.

When should I use a recovery drink?

Aiming to consume a protein and carbohydrate-based recovery drink within the first hour post-training session is ideal, especially as your appetite to eat a proper meal may be reduced after a tough training session.

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