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Sports drink, bar or gel: which supplement is best during training?

Icon of calendar06/01/2022

In this article we will describe which supplement form you should take during exercise. Which administration forms are there and which one is best?

The information described in this article comes from research carried out by the (MSc) Master's students of the University of Wageningen on behalf of and in collaboration with Victus.

1. Introduction

Athletes have long explored nutritional supplements as a means to optimize performance and recovery. This article provides a comprehensive analysis of these supplements, categorizing them based on their primary constituents and administration forms.

2. Classification of Nutritional Supplements

  • Dietary supplements: Primarily composed of micronutrients, dietary supplements may also contain macronutrients. Their efficacy in performance enhancement is contingent upon the presence of a nutrient deficiency.
  • Sports nutrition: Predominantly macronutrient-based, encompassing carbohydrates and proteins. Examples include sports drinks, recovery drinks, energy drinks, and protein bars.
  • Ergogenic aids: These supplements, such as caffeine, creatine, and beta-alanine, are characterized by their performance-enhancing claims (Wardenaar et al., 2017).

3. The role of carbohydrates in athletic performance

Carbohydrates serve as a pivotal energy source for athletes. Supplementation with carbohydrates has been shown to bolster endurance performance and sustain blood glucose levels during physical exertion (Campbell et al., 2008; Pfeiffer et al., 2010). These supplements are available in various forms, including sports drinks, gels, and bars. The efficacy of these administration forms in influencing exercise performance remains a subject of scientific debate (Guillochon & Rowlands, 2017).

4. Comparative analysis of administration forms

  • Sports drinks: These carbohydrate and sodium-infused beverages offer athletes hydration benefits, allowing them to modulate fluid and carbohydrate intake. However, their weight can pose challenges during travel or exercise. Powdered forms offer cost-effectiveness, portability, and extended shelf life (Sebastiaan Horn, 2018).
  • Gels: Specifically designed for intra-exercise consumption, gels are compact and energy-dense. Their formulation aims for maximal carbohydrate absorption while minimizing GI disturbances. Gastric emptying rates and osmolarity are critical considerations in gel development (Vist & Maughan, 1995).
  • Bars: These energy-dense products contain high carbohydrate concentrations, complemented by proteins, fats, and other nutrients. While they offer satiety benefits, their consumption can lead to reduced peak performance and heightened GI discomfort compared to gels and drinks (Guillochon & Rowlands 2017).

Empirical studies comparing gels and sports drinks have not identified significant differences in carbohydrate oxidation rates. Both forms exhibit comparable GI disturbance prevalence (Pfeiffer et al., 2010). Furthermore, no discernible differences in race completion times were observed between carbohydrate drinks and gels among runners and triathletes (Lee et al., 2014; Sareban et al., 2016).

5. Gastrointestinal implications of carbohydrate supplementation

Although carbohydrate intake has a positive effect on exercise performance, the intake of carbohydrates is also associated with symptoms of GI distress. The presence of GI dysfunction is backed up by multiple laboratory studies that found a correlation between GI problems and large amounts of carbohydrate ingestion (O’Brien et al., 2013; Rowlands et al., 2012; Triplett et al., 2010). It was found that this occurrence is due to delayed gastric emptying by a high carbohydrate concentration and osmolarity (E. P. de Oliveira & Burini, 2014). For instance, a study found that consumption of carbohydrate-containing sports drinks during an 18 km run led to a higher incidence of GI complaints compared to plain water (Van Nieuwenhoven et al., 2000). This finding is also supported by the study of Zhang, O’Kennedy, and Morton (2015), who studied the composition of several energy gels on the market (Zhang et al., 2015). They concluded that the higher the energy density of the gels, the stickier the composition was, which induced GI issues during exercise. GI issues especially occurred in the absence of fluid intake when taking a gel. Another study by Pfeiffer et al. (2010), reported that 10-20% of runners, who consumed a carbohydrate gel during exercise, experienced GI issues during a 16 km run. However, no biological markers of GI dysfunction were found in these athletes. Besides this, the study of Pfeiffer et al. (2009) found that GI problems mainly occurred in athletes with a history of GI complaints. The severity of the GI distress was associated with the severity of the GI problems they experienced before.

6. Concluding Remarks

  • Carbohydrate oxidation rates between drinks and gels are comparable, with both forms exhibiting similar GI disturbance prevalence.
  • Sports bars, as an administration form, may reduce peak performance and elevate perceived exertion, muscle fatigue, and GI discomfort compared to drinks or gels.

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