Courtesy of Daniel L. Carl, Ph.D.
Like to be like Mike! We all do, and for those of you a little younger please recall that catchy tune was about Michael Jordan and not Michael Phelps. Two of the greatest athletes of all time regardless of sport.
The branding of sports drinks as a necessary part of our swim training and performance has been very successful in part to mass advertising and catchy little tunes “Like Mike”. But the question remains: Do we really need a Sports Drink to be like Mike? Let’s take a closer look.
We have all seen the commercials on the origin of “Gator” aid as a Sports Drink to enhance recovery for football players dealing with or overcoming the heat in the south. And for what they are designed for Sports Drinks really do work. The catch is what they are designed for.
One of the prominent studies in the early 80”s by Coyle clearly identified that ingestion of a glucose-based Sports Drink would significantly delay fatigue following an exhaustive bout of exercise. The catch is that the exhaustive exercise was a continuous bout of high-intensity cycling for approximately 2 Hours. Do we have any 2-hour continuous swimming events?
The science behind the ingesting of a sports drink is that we need glycogen or sugar in order to efficiently burn our fat stores needed for longer duration efforts. Because we have a limited supply of glycogen that we can store, approximately 2 hours if our exercise bout is going to extend beyond 2 hours we almost certainly would need to supplement by ingesting or drinking some form of additional sugar. This is great for long-distance running, cycling and or long distance open water swimming but is it really relevant for a majority of our swimmers?
The possibility that we have an exhaustive 2-hour swim practice is very legitimate. Although not continuous, many times the intensity is more than high enough that we would need to think about replenishing our glycogen stores with a Sports Drink. We also may want to consider successive days of hard training and are we replenishing efficiently. So if needed, what should we drink during our hardest training sessions?
Let’s start with the understanding that not all “sugar” based supplementation is beneficial. One of the benefits of commercially available hydration and replenishment based Sports Drinks is that they contain between a 6 an 8% glucose solution. This percentage has been extensively studied and shown to be the correct amount and type of “sugar” that can cross the intestinal lining without delay. In other words, Sports Drinks can mimic water with regard to quickly getting into your system and they provide necessary energy as needed. It is possible that you could have a lower percentage solution but doubling up or increasing the amount of, or the type of sugar can have definite negative outcomes.
So what would I recommend? To begin with, water for any swim practice lasting 1 hour or less. Ingestion of a Sports Drink for this length of a practice is not necessarily needed. If you are eating well, most likely the extra glucose is not needed and the Sports Drink would just assist with hydration.
For practices lasting between 1 and 2 hours you may or may not need a Sports Drink. Sounds wishy-washy but there are many factors involved. Some of these include, the temperature of the pool water and surrounding areas, the true intensity of the workout, the length of the sets being swum, the swimmers state of readiness before the practice begins (are they well fed and well hydrated? Etc. For the most part, water will be sufficient to take most if not all swimmers through their 2-hour practice.
If you are practicing beyond 2 hours or have a strenuous dryland practice before or after the swimming, then the ingestion of a commercially available Sports Drink can assist you in maintaining energy and hydration levels and getting through a tough practice session.
Finally, if in doubt on what to drink I do not see any harm in drinking a commercially available Sports Drink. However, for most of us fresh, cool, water is probably all we need.
Daniel L. Carl Ph.D. Bio
Dan Carl is an Associate Professor of Exercise Physiology in the Department of Rehabilitation, Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Carl also works as a Senior Coach and consultant with the Cincinnati Marlins and as head coach at Sycamore HS. Prior to his 13 years in Cincinnati, Dr. Carl worked 14 years as a Division I coach at Miami Univ., Univ. of Delaware, Ohio State Univ. and Valparaiso University.