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Sports Drinks: Are They Necessary?

posted Jun 25, 2018, 9:48 AM by Tracy Ducker, MS, RDN   [ updated Jun 25, 2018, 10:46 AM ]

Sports drinks have been around for many years, and one of the most popular ones, Gatorade, was developed in 1965 at the University of Florida for the football players who were struggling during practice due to the heat and humidity. A year later the Gators won the Orange Bowl for the first time. Athletes and teams from all over demanded to know the Gator's secret. Hence, the popularity of sports drinks to enhance performance. 

Sports drinks typically contain sugar (high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, glucose, or fructose), salt and potassium, food coloring, and sometimes protein and/or vitamins and minerals are added. The sugar adds flavor and acts as an energy source, the salt (sodium and chloride) and potassium are added to replace electrolytes that are lost through prolonged sweating. Our bodies typically store enough carbohydrates to fuel our exercising muscles for about an hour, if you are exercising beyond that, consuming 30 grams/hour of carbohydrate has been found to improve performance (if that is your goal). Sports drinks contain anywhere from 10-20 grams of sugar (carbohydrate) and 50-80 calories per 8oz. Keeping electrolytes in balance helps maintain fluid balance. Sodium and chloride are lost in the greatest amounts and potassium in lesser amounts. How much a person sweats and the concentration of electrolytes in their sweat varies depending on genetics, weather, duration and intensity of exercise and fitness level.

According the American College of Sports Medicine, sports drinks are beneficial for athletes who exercise vigorously for longer than 60 minutes in hot and humid conditions. This does not apply to the majority of people who exercise. For most of us who exercise less than an hour,  water is best. It is calorie and sugar free. If you are exercising to lose or maintain body weight drinking a sports drink every time you exercise can undo all your hard work.

So what are the recommendations for sports drinks?

  • Not necessary for exercise lasting less than 60 minutes, drink water to stay hydrated.

  • Not recommended for children and adolescents as sports drinks contain a lot of sugar and sodium and calories and were designed for adults, unless the child is exercising vigorously for over an hour and then it should be only consumed in small amounts.

  • For exercise longer than 60 minutes in hot, humid conditions the following guidelines from the American Council on Exercise are recommended:

    • Before exercise - there are no recommendations, but unless you are a salty sweater (i.e. your clothes and/or skin have white salty residue) you can save calories and drink water prior to the event.

    • During exercise - use thirst cues and drink a sports beverage alternating with water

    • Post exercise - Water and food containing salt and potassium are usually enough. If you are salty or excessive sweater, consuming a sports drink can help replace electrolytes and rehydrate you. Monitor body weight to determine sweat loss, aim for no more than 2% loss. For example, a 150 lb man should not lose more than 3 lbs. post exercise.

To summarize, sports drink consumption is booming. These beverage companies are marketing to children, and everyone who exercises. However, they are really only beneficial for those exercising (or working) for long periods in hot, humid conditions. Most of us can stay hydrated and keep our electrolytes in balance by drinking water and eating a balanced diet.