Key Points: A high carbohydrate + hydrogel sports drink did not improve performance in a study of elite XC skiers.
Have you been wondering whether using a hydrogel sports drink would improve your cross country skiing performance? In the past several years researchers have looked at the addition of alginate or pectin to sports drinks to increase available carbohydrate to support intense endurance activities. Alginate and pectin can form a gel when exposed to stomach acid, and theoretically can allow ingestion of high amounts of carbs with less gastrointestinal (GI) distress. At least one commercial sports drink (Maurten) has embraced this technology.
This is one area where there is actually an XC specific study! In 2019, Pettersson et al, of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, looked at the effect of using a high carbohydrate (CHO) drink with added alginate and pectin (hydrogel) on performance in elite male and female biathletes and XC skiers. The 12 subjects completed 120 minutes of diagonal-style roller-skiing followed by a double poling time trial. Researchers looked at rates of burning CHO and fat, blood glucose and lactate levels, ratings of GI discomfort, and ratings of perceived exertion (RPE.) (RPE is the athlete’s rating of how much physical effort their performance required.)
Analysis of the results showed that using the high CHO + hydrogel vs. a placebo drink led to increased burning of carbohydrate from the drink and decreased burning of fat, while preserving muscle and liver glycogen. (This is consistent with studies of other athletes.) There were no differences between drinks in GI discomfort or RPE.
The authors conclude that the high CHO drink with hydrogel was well tolerated and might be helpful to meet CHO intake recommendations without a large fluid intake. Since the cold environment of skiing may mean lower sweat rates, this is a potential benefit. There was, however, no improvement in the time trial performance with use of the experimental beverage.
The bottom line is that you might find a hydrogel sports drink helpful to maintain your fueling, but there is no evidence that it will improve your performance.
© 2020 Kathleen Searles, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD
Reference: Pettersson S et al. Effects of supplementing with an 18%carbohydrate-hydrogel drink versus a placebo during whole-body exercise in -5°C with elite cross-country ski athletes: a crossover study. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2019, 16:46
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