Special high-carb drinks offer little performance advantage or gut relief

Both elite and amateur athletes would get better performance bang for their buck using traditional carbohydrate drinks/sports foods rather than costly hydrogel drinks, according to Australian Catholic University researchers who found the popular high-carb drinks are of little benefit during moderate exercise.

Billed as the world’s fastest sports fuel, hydrogel drinks are favoured by top elite distance runners such as marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge, Desiree Linden and Galen Rupp who have spruiked the merits of the specially-formulated high-carb drinks.

Since appearing on the market two years ago, they have taken the endurance world by storm and become increasingly popular with both amateur and top-level athletes looking for a performance edge.

However, in a review published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, ACU researchers found six studies have so far failed to find advantages to performance or gut function with hydrogel drinks, at least during moderate exercise.

Based on current evidence, the engineered sports drink did not speed up carbohydrate delivery to the muscles, reduce GI distress, or improve performance any better than traditional sports drinks for moderate aerobic exercise lasting more than an hour.

Dr Andy King, from ACU’s Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research, led the review of six studies that included 61 well-trained runners, cyclists and cross-country skiers exercising for 60 minutes or more while drinking either hydrogel drinks or standard sports beverages.

“In the end, there was no clear advantage for the hydrogel drink in terms of GI distress, carbohydrate delivery, or performance under the conditions which have been tested in the research so far,” Dr King said.

“How much better it works for exercise performance in other settings remains scientifically unproven so we would say save your money when it comes to buying these drinks for performance until new research finds evidence of how and when there might be benefits.”

Carbohydrate is the preferred fuel source for the working muscles when it comes to high intensity, prolonged exercise but Dr King said the body’s carbohydrate stores only have a certain capacity. Executing an effective fuelling strategy during a key training session is important for sustained optimal performance.

Enter the new breed of gel-like high carbohydrate drinks, known as hydrogel drinks, which claim to deliver high amounts of carbohydrates (fuel) to exercising athletes – while significantly reducing GI distress – to enhance endurance performance.

These drinks contain sodium alginate and pectin, thickening agents often used in food preparation, which react with stomach acidity when swallowed to form a gel-like bubble packed with carbohydrate. The carb bubble bypasses gut sensors as it moves into the intestine and dissolves to quickly deliver more fuel to muscles.

While hydrogel drinks have shown to have little benefit in moderate exercise, Dr King said more research was needed to see if they worked better than other carbohydrate beverages in prolonged high-intensity sports such as elite-level marathon races.