What's in your water bottle these days? If it's more than just water, you're not alone; Many endurance athletes and outdoor adventurers are reaching for sports drink mixes, tablets and caps.

REI sports drink mixes taste test

From electrolytes to caffeine, these mixes and caps are designed to give your workout a boost. Photo: Erin McGrady

The reasons go beyond just adding flavor. Many of these mixes are designed for refueling, enhanced performance and in some cases boosting recovery.

On a recent trip to REI, we purchased everything we could get our hands on in the energy drink department, with the goal of testing them in the field. The following is a list of our top picks, from our favorite to least favorite, based on taste, nutrition and performance.

1. NUUN Hydration Electrolytes – Fresh Lime ($7.00/10 servings; $0.70/serving)

A serving is 1 tablet dissolved in 16 ounces of water.

This is our top pick in large part because it tastes great and also offers 40 mg of caffeine. Sometimes on longer runs you want and need that extra little burst of energy that caffeine provides. In addition to caffeine, one tablet also includes 38 mg of vitamin C as well as 360 mg of sodium and 100 mg of potassium. There are also several other electrolytes in this tablet which help keep your system regulated. Plus, the flavor beat out all the rest.

Pros: It smells good and tastes great. It's easy to drink at room temperature but is really good chilled. The lime flavor is particularly refreshing when it's hot out. It's also low in sugar at 1 gram per serving.

Cons: If you're not into caffeine, you'll want to choose something else.

2. NUUN Hydration Electrolytes – Strawberry Lemonade ($7.00/10 servings; $0.70/serving)

A serving is 1 tablet dissolved in 16 ounces of water.

What's not to love about strawberry lemonade? It more than lived up to our expectations and shows up regularly in our water bottles. It's very similar in makeup to the NUUN Fresh Lime mentioned above with 38 mg of vitamin C, 360 mg of sodium and 100 mg of potassium.

Pros: Tastes like you'd expect it to: a little sweet and a little tart. It's low in sugar at 1 gram per serving. Super refreshing on both long runs and rides. We also like just sipping on it throughout the day.

Cons: Has a slightly 'fake sugar' aftertaste.

3. Hammer Nutrition Endurolytes Fizz – Grape ($6.00/13 servings; $0.46 cents/serving)

A serving is 1 tablet dissolved in 16 ounces of water.

The classic grape flavor is familiar and easy to drink. It reminds us of Kool-Aid with just the tiniest hint of bubbles. It doesn't have caffeine so we didn't experience increased energy but we did stay hydrated and enjoyed drinking early and often with this drink. Unlike the NUUN products mentioned above, this tablet has 0 mg of vitamin c, 200 mg of sodium and 100 mg of potassium (a slightly different composition but no less effective in our trial).

Pros: This drink is not overly sweet, is gluten free and dissolves quickly. It doesn't contain any sugar. If you don't like it, there's a good chance your kids will.

Cons: The stevia leaf extract gave the drink a slightly odd aftertaste.

4. NUUN Hydration Electrolytes – Grape ($7.00/10 servings; $0.70/serving)

A serving is one tablet dissolved in 16 ounces of water.

If you're looking for a drink with just a hint of flavor, try this one. It's a little weaker in taste than the Hammer hydration drink listed above. Like the other NUUN tablets we reviewed, this offering has 38 mg of vitamin c, 360 mg of sodium and 100 mg of potassium.

Pros: Slightly effervescent. It's also gluten free and vegan. It's low in sugar at 1 gram.

Cons: The taste is weaker and a little sweeter than we prefer.

5. Skratch Labs Sport Hydration Drink Mix with Strawberries ($1.95/1 serving)

A serving is 1 packet dissolved in 16 ounces of water.

See something floating in your drink? Don't worry, this mix is actually made with pieces of strawberries. Plus it's Non-GMO, gluten free, dairy free, vegan and kosher. It has 380 mg of sodium, and also contains the highest amount of sugar per serving (19 grams) out of all the drinks we tested.

Pros: It has a really natural taste. (Less like strawberry flavoring and more like water that’s been flavored with actual fruit.)

Cons: You may not want to deal with the seeds if you're racing. Plus, if you are planning a shorter workout or run, the sugar this one contains could be overkill.

sports drink mixes taste test

Photo: Erin McGrady

6. Hammer Nutrition Heed Hydrating Energy Electrolyte Drink – Lemon Lime ($2.00/1 serving)

A serving is one packet dissolved into 16-28 ounces of water.

We were expecting to like this one a lot more than we actually did, especially because we really liked Hammer’s grape drink. Unfortunately, the flavor fell flat and we didn't really find it to be energizing (there’s no caffeine.) It does have 40 mg of sodium and 27 mg of potassium.

Pros: This one smells good and is also refreshing because of the citrus flavors. We enjoyed it better cold rather than room temp. It's low in sugar at 2 grams per serving.

Cons: It has a syrupy taste and was a bit too sweet for us. The aftertaste was reminiscent of sunscreen.

7. Hammer Nutrition Recoverite Recovery Drink – Strawberry ($3.50/1 serving)

A serving is one packet dissolved in 4-8 ounces of water.

This drink is made with grass-fed whey protein and delivers a 3:1 (carbs:protein) ratio to help you recover after activity. The mix contains 50 mg of sodium, 20 mg of potassium and 10 grams of protein. Though the packet contains milk, much like other whey protein powders, it does not need to be refrigerated. For best taste and overall results, mix the packet with cold water and drink it immediately after a workout. We experienced reduced muscle soreness after using this product following a long run and ride, and were able to train hard the following day.

Pros: It smells good and it's low in sugar at 2 grams. Contains 50 mg of sodium as well as 60 mg of l-carnosine (an antioxidant) and 20 mg of potassium. There are no preservatives in this drink.

Cons: This drink is a little too sweet for our taste buds. It was almost as if we were drinking strawberry flavored bubble gum.

8. Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem Ultra Endurance Fuel – Orange Vanilla ($3.25/1 serving)

A serving is one packet dissolved in 16-28 ounces of water.

This drink is recommended for endurance athletes who are training for several hours or more. It contains 210 mg of sodium, 80 mg of potassium and 7 grams of protein. We used it on a two hour road ride and though we liked it at the beginning, we found it difficult to consume later on in the workout.

Pros: Low in sugar at 2 grams and no preservatives. Contains a small amount of fat which comes from soy lecithin (the extract from soybean oil). Our energy felt stable throughout the ride.

Cons: This drink does not taste good unless it's cold. When the drink is warm it reminded us of watery oatmeal. It also contains soy, so it may not be a good option for those with allergies or trying to stay away from soy products. In addition, we don't recommended using this drink in hydration bladders since the protein component tends to separate and settle at the bottom. Put it in a bottle where you can shake it as necessary. Finally, if this drink is premixed and left out in warm weather, it can spoil so plan accordingly. (Hammer recommends drinking this within 3-5 hours of mixing it.)

9. NUUN Hydration Performance Electrolytes + Carbohydrates – Blueberry Strawberry ($2.00/ 1 serving)

A serving is one packet dissolved in 16 ounces of water.

We had high hopes for this drink because we like blueberries and strawberries, but we could barely stomach the flavor. It contains 380 mg of sodium, 200 mg of potassium and 80 mg of chloride.

Pros: This is made with dried fruit powder. It's a Non-GMO product.

Cons: The smell was overpowering and the taste was slightly sour. It's also fairly high in sugar at 12 grams.

10. SaltStick Caps ($2.00/3 servings; $0.66/serving)

A serving is one cap.

In addition to the drinks and tablets above, we also tried SaltStick Caps. Both are vegetarian and contain electrolytes as well as vitamin D, as well as zero grams of sugar. According to SaltStick, the formula is designed to help minimize heat stress and muscle cramping. We found this to be true after testing them on several different mid-day runs. Note: we took the pills about 15 minutes prior to activity.

Pros: Includes 215 mg of sodium, 63 mg of potassium, 22 mg of calcium and 11 mg of magnesium. The capsule has very little taste if you get it down in one swallow.

Cons: It's a fairly large capsule, and if you don't like swallowing pills you may not like this supplement. Consider opening the capsule and dissolving it in a sports drink if you don't like swallowing pills.

11. SaltStick Caps Plus ($3.00/ 3 servings; $1.00/serving)

A serving is one cap.

SaltStick Caps Plus have all of the benefits of regular SaltStick Caps in addition to a small shot of caffeine. After testing the caps on two different six-mile runs in 90-degree weather, we felt strong and experienced zero cramps.

Pros: The SaltStick Caps Plus have 30 mg of caffeine as well as 190 mg of sodium, 53 mg of potassium, 14 mg of calcium and 7 mg of magnesium.

Cons: Same size capsule (fairly large) as the SaltStick Cap so it may be difficult for some to swallow. Again, if you don't enjoy pills, consider opening the capsule and dissolving it in a sports drink.

Conclusion

There are so many sports drink choices out there that it can be hard to know what to choose. After doing some testing, NUUN Hydration Electrolytes Fresh Lime stood out head and shoulders above the rest. We loved not only the flavor, but also the boost it gave from the added caffeine and the value.

While everyone has different preferences and needs, this guide is meant to be a jumping off point to guide you in the right direction the next time you find yourself in the sports drink aisle. Our top picks are below.

Best Taste: NUUN Hydration Electrolytes – Fresh Lime
Best Value: Hammer Nutrition Endurolytes Fizz – Grape
Best Fuel/Performance: NUUN Hydration Electrolytes – Fresh Lime
Least amount of sugar: Hammer Nutrition Endurolytes Fizz – Grape

Erin McGrady and Caroline Whatley are based in Asheville, North Carolina, but are currently traveling the country in their van. You can follow along with their adventures at Authentic Asheville.

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