The number one mistake most athletes make with their sports nutrition is accepting, without question, that a ready-made or powdered sports drink is the best solution for their race day nutrition.
But … before I explain why ready-made or powdered sports drinks are a big mistake, I want to define what an athlete is.
In my mind, an athlete is someone who does 10 to 35 hours per week of training. Someone doing two to three runs a week (like me), that’s exercise.
I make the distinction because, although everyone can benefit from improving their sports nutrition, the longer you’re out there and the more serious you are about your sport, the greater the benefit this discussion will be to you.
All the work I’ve done over the years has been focused on improving athlete performance and, besides equipment failure, the three main offenders that slow athletes down are:
Early onset fatigue
Working closely with athletes, I’ve been able to develop a simple approach that helps athletes eliminate stomach problems, avoid muscle cramping and go faster.
Every athlete I’ve worked with has improved by following my strategy but the one thing they all had to do first was change their thinking and realise this:
Being an athlete puts you in a special group – a group that has very specific needs that mass market products can’t meet.
It’s important to understand that if you’re an athlete, if you’re out there training between 10 and 35 hours a week, you’re in a minority. At best, you represent around 0.1% of the population. (You wouldn’t think so from all the advertising, but there are only about 25,000 athletes, tops, in Australia.)
You need to bear in mind that the marketing around sports nutrition isn’t directed at you. Given how much money a sports nutrition company is spending on marketing, they want their products in the hands of as many people as possible. So, while the ads are pitched in a way that suggest their products are for athletes, really, the products are made for the general population. Those who are ‘exercising’ at best. (I would argue powdered and ready-made sports drinks aren’t good for ‘exercisers’ either, but that’s not important right now.)
So why are powdered ready-made sports drinks such a mistake?
After all, they’re convenient, have been developed by leaders in the sports nutrition industry, provide calorie and hydration with every mouthful, are promoted by athletes, coaches and trainers and everyone’s using them.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is powdered and ready-made sports drinks are a one-size-fits-all solution. These sports nutrition solutions treat every athlete and every race as if they’re the same.
And clearly, they’re not.
I want you to imagine every competitor on race day being told that they can compete but they have to ride the same size bike and wear the same size shoes. How would you respond to an event organiser providing you with one-size-fits-all equipment?
For some of you it would be fine. The bike would be the right size or close enough, the shoes would fit well enough for you to make do. It wouldn’t be ideal and it wouldn’t feel right but you’d get through it. But for the rest of you, it would be a disaster. Your feet wouldn’t reach the pedals, or your knees would hit your chin. Some athletes wouldn’t be able to squeeze their feet into the shoes, but on others they would look like clown shoes. So many different sized and shaped athletes all forced to compete on the same equipment doesn’t seem reasonable does it?
This analogy applies to any type of sporting equipment, whether your sport is golf, tennis, football, soccer or motor racing. You have specific needs for your sporting equipment and you are able to adapt that equipment to changing conditions. It’s what all athletes do with their gear and the more experienced you are, the more refinements and adjustments you make. If you’re not comfortable with your equipment, you make adjustments until you are.
If you’re competing with equipment that doesn’t suit your unique physiological makeup, you can’t realise your potential. Simple!
As an athlete you need to apply this same thinking to your sports nutrition. Using powdered or ready-made sports drinks is akin to everyone riding the same size bike, or wearing the same size shoes. Unfortunately the vast majority of athletes rely on calories from their one-size-fits-all powdered and ready-made sports drinks. Marketing companies, very cleverly I might add, have convinced you that you need calories/sugar in your drink. Of course, for some of you, ready-made drinks may do the job, but for most of you, I know for a fact that these powdered and ready-made sports drinks are slowing you down.
You have a unique set of numbers when it comes to the amount of sweat you lose in varying environmental conditions, so you need to adjust the volume of fluid you consume based on the environmental conditions at the time. You don't want to be forced to drink a set volume of fluid in an attempt to access the calories.
You have a specific amount of sodium that is lost in your sweat and having tested over a thousand athletes to determine the sodium concentration of sweat. Of these athletes I have tested, I can confidently say that there are only a few select individuals that are able to access enough sodium from these powdered and ready made sports drinks, the rest of the athletes I have tested don't get anywhere near replacing the amount of sodium they are losing.
The sheer power of marketing has convinced athletes that a one-size fits all powdered or ready made sports drink is going to suit everyone in all environmental conditions.