Sports drinks seem like they should be healthy. Athletes endorse them, and they don't have the same "liquid lolly" reputation as the Pepsi a few shelves over. But how helpful are they to serious and casual exercisers? Not very, it turns out. Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
To be clear, we're talking about sports drinks, not energy drinks like Rockstar and Monster. Despite the similar names, they're no relation. Energy drinks are super-caffeinated soft drinks with a few gimmicky supplements thrown in to make them look special. Sports drinks, on the other hand, are the beverages like Gatorade and Powerade that deliver carbohydrates and electrolytes in a typically fruity, brightly coloured fluid sold in plastic bottles. To put it another way: Energy drinks are for all-night video game marathons; sports drinks are for actual marathons.
For Casual Sipping, Sports Drinks Are Little Better Than Other Sugary Drinks
Aside from sugar, sports drinks mainly contain electrolytes like sodium and potassium. If you're not in the middle of a marathon, you don't need an extra dose of electrolytes. You get plenty of them from the food you eat, and arguably, when it comes to sodium, a lot of us already get too much.
If you're feeling dehydrated, either from a stomach bug or from a hangover, sports drinks may help a little bit — not because there's anything special about them, but just because water and sugar and electrolytes are helpful when you're rehydrating. You can get the same benefits from a glass of water and your favourite snacks. Enjoy the Powerade if you like, but don't expect miracles.
The more concerning thing on the ingredients list is the sugar. It's why these drinks taste so good, and it's unnecessary outside of sports. Nutritionists and dietitians agree that we all drink far too much sugar to begin with.
Six hundred millilitres of Gatorade has 36g of sugar. If you drink the 600mL bottle, one of the common sizes, you're getting 40 per cent of your recommended daily intake of sugar.
At least sports drinks fare better than soft drink and juice. Gatorade's shelfmate, Pepsi, contains 69g of sugar per serving of 591mL. The same amount of orange juice contains 49g or so. But really, all of these are more empty kilojoules than we need — and don't forget that the guidelines are per day, not per drink.
If you're looking for a way to save kilojoules compared to soft drink, sports drinks work, but not as well as switching to water, carbonated water or diet drinks. Some sports drinks are also available in a low kilojoule version, like Powerade's Zero. Zero has 0g of sugar in a 600mL bottle, the sugar having been replaced by sweeteners. In short, sports drinks aren't good for you, they're just less bad than some of the other options.
Sports Drinks Aren't Necessary for Most Exercise
Most of us know that it's cheating to chug a Powerade while sitting in the couch, but it probably seems like a good idea to grab a bottle on your way home from the gym. Though if you're doing a quick bodyweight workout, an hour's sweat session in the gym or a few kilometres of running, you still probably don't need sports drinks. Here are the ingredients that are supposed to help athletes:
- Water: It's good to sip water according to your thirst, so this is legit.
- Sugar: Your body keeps enough sugar on hand to get through at least an hour or two of working out. You definitely don't need to consume any during a workout that lasts less than 60 minutes. After you finish, your next meal or snack will easily replenish what you lost.
- Electrolytes: Your body loses sodium in the form of sweat, plus smaller amounts of other electrolytes like potassium. Again, we replenish these when we eat. There's no need for an emergency infusion of electrolytes before, during or after a short workout.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) concludes that sports drinks can be helpful for intense exercise that lasts more than an hour. Gatorade-funded researchers and trainers would prefer that you drink sports drinks at every opportunity, but that advice benefits their bottom line more than your body.
There is a tiny advantage to consuming sugar during a workout, even a short one, but it's not what you think. In several studies on runners and cyclists, reviewed here in Nutrition Journal, athletes who tasted sugar were able to turn in better performances. They didn't even have to swallow the sports drink to get this effect; a swish and spit worked just as well. Researchers still aren't sure why this happens, but if you'd like to experiment with it yourself, any sugar source should do the trick.
If You Need Electrolytes, Sports Drinks Aren't Your Only Option
The classic case for a sports drink is an athlete who is working out for hours at a time, burning a ton of kilojoules so they need sugar to keep them going, and sweating a lot so they need to replace sodium. That leaves us with people like marathoners, who want to make sure their blood sugar stays in an optimal range during their whole race. Football and soccer players also drink the stuff, since their game day exercise adds up to several hours and they will be working out at a fairly intense level.
These are the athletes sports drinks were originally developed for, like the University of Florida's football team, the Gators for whom Gatorade was named. Still, a lot of athletes who fit the bill don't actually drink commercial sports drinks. Some do, of course, especially if their team has a sponsorship deal with a sports drink company. But many marathoners, for example, prefer water with (or sometimes without) a separate source of electrolytes.
Those electrolytes can come in packets like Ultima Replenisher or tablets like Nuun. Some athletes swear by pretzels for sodium and bananas or coconut water for potassium. The advantage of this DIY approach is that you can manage your electrolytes, sugar and water as separate factors.
Sports drinks and their alternatives make the most sense for endurance athletes. If your specialty is strength training, on the other hand, you aren't continually draining sugar out of your blood in the same was as a runner or cyclist who is covering kilometre after kilometre. If you're working out to gain muscle or to lose weight, you're also probably watching your diet closely. Rather than using some of your day's kilojoules on sports drinks, you're probably better off spending those on protein or other healthy foods that help you towards your goals.
One argument against sports drinks, even for runners, is that sugary liquids can cause digestive upset. If you're chugging sports drinks all marathon long, don't be surprised if you're spending a lot of time in the porta potties after the race - or, if you're especially unlucky, during it. The ACSM recommends that sports drinks be less than eight per cent carbohydrate for exactly this reason; soft drinks and juice are both too sugary. Bottled sports drinks are usually between six and eight per cent carbohydrate, which works for some athletes but not others.
If you're in this category of super-active exerciser, you probably already know it. As you're training for your marathon, you'll end up experimenting with drinks and snacks that fuel you for the long haul without upsetting your digestive system. Maybe sports drinks will be part of your routine for when you're on your feet. Maybe they will just be a favourite treat to cool down after a long run. And if you choose to go without sports drinks entirely, that's a perfectly good option too.