It’s hot. You’re exercising hard, you’re sweating hard, and you’re thirsty. Should you reach for a specially formulated sports drink – or plain water?
Sports drinks are available at convenience stores, grocery stores, bulk discount supermarkets, online, and more. They’re widely and aggressively marketed. Manufacturers spout claims that their products can improve performance and endurance, hydrate you better than water, and transform you in to a super-athlete. Advertisements for sports drinks make it seem like no one should step out the door to walk the dog without a bottle of the sugary-salty solution in hand. With all that marketing, it’s no surprise that sports drinks are widely consumed by kids and adults alike.
But most of that hype is, well, mostly hype, says David Tanner, Ph.D., a researcher in the Human Performance Labs at Indiana University, Bloomington. Tanner, who has completed nearly every ultraendurance event from the Ironman triathlons to the Western States 100 mile run to the Race Across America, has also guzzled just about every sports drink ever marketed.
“If you’re exercising for less than one hour, you probably do not need a sports drink,” says Tanner. “Plain water will hydrate you better and empty from your stomach more quickly.”
On the other hand, well-formulated sports drinks can be a boon for people who are exercising or working hard for long periods in intense heat – think marathon runners, long-distance cyclists, triathletes, and swimmers. For these athletes, sports drinks can be an important source of fluid, electrolytes, and carbohydrates, and they may perform better and longer. Research shows that people who drink 1½ to 4 cups of a sports drink per hour may improve their performance by 20 percent or more for workouts lasting longer than 90 minutes.
A Little Sports Drink History
The most popular sports drink, Gatorade, was developed in 1965 when an assistant coach to the Florida “Gators” football team asked a group of University of Florida physicians to help his players perform better in the heat. The physicians – Dr. Robert Cade, Dr. Dana Shires, Dr. H. James Free and Dr. Alejandro de Quesada – started by identifying the things that were hurting the players’ performance and making them susceptible to heat illness. They found two key problems:
Players were sweating profusely, losing fluids and electrolytes, and not replacing them
Players were burning “large amounts of carbohydrates” that were not being replenished
Cade’s team set out to develop a formula that would restore lost fluids and electrolytes, plus provide carbohydrates. It took a few tries, recalls Tanner, who was swimming for legendary Indiana swim coach “Doc” Counsilman – whose swim teams won six NCAA championships – at the time.
Tanner recalls testing the original Gatorade. “The original Gatorade was developed in Florida, of course,” says Tanner. “We tested it up here. Doc mixed it up for us and we were supposed to take it during practice.”
“We had to gag it down,” recalls Tanner with a chuckle. “It was thick and salty and yucky. You couldn’t add enough sugar.”
Based partly on input from athletes, Cade’s research team eventually decided not to dilute the solution, making it more palatable. The Florida Gators started drinking the concoction at games. They finished the next season 9-2 – and the sports drink industry was born.
Sports Drinks: A Public Health Hazard?
That industry is powerful and becoming more powerful by the year. In 2010, Gatorade was the fifth largest beverage trademark in the world, while Powerade expanded by 19 percent. Today, consumers have multiple choices in sports drinks. Major beverage manufacturers including PepsiCo and Coca-Cola market their own brands, while mid- and small-sized companies offer specialized versions and market them to specific audiences such as runners and cyclists. Each drink offers a slightly different mix of carbohydrate types and electrolytes at various concentrations.
However, most consumption of sports drinks, says Tanner, is unnecessary – and may even be harmful in the long term. “Most of us don’t need a sport drink at all because we don’t exercise long enough,” he explains. “I hate to see children using Gatorade as a daily beverage. Because of the sugar, it’s not a good choice for them health-wise.”
Tanner’s fears were echoed by a clinical report published May 29, 2011 in the journal Pediatrics by the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition and the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. The committee concluded that “frequent or excessive intake of caloric sports drinks can substantially increase the risk for overweight or obesity in children and adolescents.”
Neither are fruit juices a good choice, because they contain even higher concentrations of sugar. Coke, at 23 percent sugar, contains even more. A robust body of research suggests that consumption of sugary drinks is contributing to a rise in childhood obesity, a global public health problem.
Similarly, electrolyte replacement is not an issue for most athletes. “Unless you’re exercising for a couple hours, it’s probably not an issue at all,” Tanner says. “We already get so much salt in our diets.”
The average athlete starts any event with between 8,000 and 10,000 mg of sodium stored in body tissues. Other key electrolytes – calcium, magnesium, and potassium – are plentiful in a healthy diet. Exercise for less than one hour is not likely to deplete those stores, says Tanner.
There is, however, one exception to the one-hour rule: If you’re planning to use a specific drink during a longer event, test it in training. It’s a bad thing to reach the big day and realize that your drink of choice gives you stomach cramps or worse.
How to Stay Hydrated
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) offers guidelines for fluid replacement and exercise during athletic competition or a strenuous workout:
Start hydrated. The ACSM recommends that athletes start any event in a state of optimal hydration – called “euhydration.” To achieve this state, start drinking several hours before exercise or competition. Eat some salty snacks with fluids to make yourself thirsty. Salty foods will also help you retain water. Don’t try to hyperhydrate shortly before the event by drinking excess fluids. That’s only going to make you have to pee in the middle of the event and won’t provide any extra benefit. Your body can only absorb so much water.
Get your electrolytes in order before you start exercising. A lightly salted snack or a small meal containing sodium a couple hours before exercise will provide adequate electrolytes, even in the rare instance that you might start with an imbalance.
Save the sports drinks for workouts lasting more than one hour. The ACOM suggests that sports drinks “may” be used during exercise lasting more than an hour. During longer exercise bouts, sports drinks can help to restore lost fluids, electrolytes, and carbohydrates.
Endurance athletes – i.e. those working out steadily for more than one hour – should consume some food or sports drink with carbohydrates (i.e. some form of sugar).
If the environment is hot and humid, or if you’re an extremely heavy sweater, you may benefit from using a sports drink that contains carbohydrates and electrolytes during exercise.
How to Choose the Best Sports Drinks
So what if you or your kids do work out for more than an hour? How do you choose the right sports drink?
Today’s sports drinks have come a long way from that first, thick, salty solution that Tanner and his teammates gagged down. “People are getting a lot smarter, and information is much better about what should and should not go into a sports drink,” says Tanner. “You don’t see as many sports drinks with fructose as the number one sugar. A lot of products are using complex carbohydrates such as maltodextrins and glucose polymers.”
Complex carbohydrates are a better choice, explains Tanner, because of the way they’re absorbed by the body. Most well-formulated modern sports drinks contain glucose polymers, which you’ll often see listed as “maltodextrins” on the label. Because the gut absorbs units, it doesn’t matter how big the chain is – it takes in the whole thing. This allows a lot more glucose in the blood per amount of drink than a solution that contains a smaller simple sugar like sucrose.
However, Tanner cautions, steer away from any product that lists fructose first or second in its list of sweeteners. “Fructose is a poor choice for a sports drink because of how it’s absorbed in the gut,” he explains. “If you’re using a sports drink for extended exercise, you want to get as much carbohydrate as you can into the blood stream as quickly as possible. You also want something that’s easily absorbed and doesn’t upset the stomach.”
Fructose fails on both counts. Fructose takes longer to get into blood stream, so it’s longer before carbohydrates are available for energy. While it’s waiting to be absorbed, fructose hangs out in the small intestine. As fructose builds up in the gut, water starts to shift from the blood to the intestine. The result? Cramps and diarrhea. More than one marathon dream has ended in a “Did Not Finish” thanks to a fructose-containing sports drink.
Yet it’s hard to get away from high fructose corn syrup. It’s cheap, sweet, and tasty. It’s used to sweeten everything from sodas to Rice Krispies. Read the label of that bottle of Gatorade, and you’ll find it lurking in the ingredients list – albeit not as the first sweetener.
“As long as fructose is not the first sugar, it might be okay,” says Tanner. “Remember that the ingredients list is ordered by weight. So if it’s farther down the list, there’s not as much of it.”
What about concentration? Sports drinks should be relatively dilute. Any solution that’s more than six to seven percent carbohydrates slows down gastric emptying – and can lead to rather uncomfortable gastric problems. Most drinks should be diluted to no more than four to nine percent sugar, which translates into 13 to 19 grams of carbohydrate per eight-ounce cup.
Other drinks, such as Accelerade, contain a bit of protein, usually in a 3:1 or 4:1 mix of carbohydrate to protein. That protein is probably not that helpful to performance during any specific exercise session, says Tanner, but it may help athletes to recover more quickly from intense workouts.
Want to fill that bottle with water, anyone?
American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition and the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. (2011) Clinical Report—Sports Drinks and Energy Drinks for Children and Adolescents: Are They Appropriate? Pediatrics, peds.2011-0965; published ahead of print May 29, 2011, doi:10.1542/peds.2011-0965
Sawka, M.N., Burke, L.M., Eichner, E.R., Maughan, R. J., Montain, S.J., & Stachenfield, N.S. (2007). American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand: Exercise and fluid replacement. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 39, pp. 377-390.