Your Complete Guide to Sports Drinks
Do you ~really~ need that sports drink? Two dietitians on when it's fine to gulp down a sports drink (and why), and when you really should just stick with water.
Sports drinks are basically just sugary neon-colored beverages that are just as bad for you as soda, right? Well, it depends.
Yes, sports drinks have sugar and a lot of it. "One 16.9 oz.-bottle contains more than seven teaspoons of added sugar," says Angie Asche M.S., R.D., of Eleat Sports Nutrition, LLC. This is way more sugar than most people should have or need in a beverage. "This provides excess energy intake without essential nutrients and may also lead to blood sugar fluctuations throughout the day," says registered dietitian Kelly Jones, M.S. Plus, some sports drinks contain artificial flavors, sweeteners, and colors, which many people prefer to avoid. (Related: These New Products Turn Basic Water Into a Fancy Health Drink)
Sports drinks are formulated to help with hydration and fueling during intense workouts, but the issue (and where their bad rap stems from) is when people reach for a sports drink when they really don't one. Nope, you don't need a Gatorade when you're just eating your lunch at your desk nor after a causal 20 minutes on the elliptical. "If your workout lasts an hour or less, chances are slim that you actually need a sports drink," says Angie Asche M.S., R.D., of Eleat Sports Nutrition, LLC.
What's really in sports drinks?
To answer that, first, here's a little more about what's really in sports drinks?
Essentially, a sports drink boils down to three components—fluid, carbs, and electrolytes.
The liquid in a sports drink is meant to replace the fluid lost from sweat. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends for athletes to avoid losing more than 2 percent of their body weight from fluid during exercise. For example, a 140-pound woman should not lose more than 2.8 pounds during exercise. If that happens, that's a sign of severe dehydration. You can replace these fluids with water, but there are two key components in sports drinks that might make them a better choice in this case.
This macronutrient plays a crucial part in the make-up of sports drink because "they are the quickest form of energy for muscles during exercise," says registered dietitian Kelly Jones, M.S. Carbs can come in many shapes and sizes, but they all break down into the simple sugar glucose, which provides energy for everyday activities and physical exertion like exercise. "When the carbs in your body are depleted, intensity and duration of exercise declines," says Jones. (Related: Have You Heard of Carb Rinsing?)
Ideally, sports drinks should contain two forms of sugars, such as glucose and fructose (fruit sugar), to help with gut absorption. Each sugar has its own transporter (a protein that helps it get where it needs to go in the body) to move it into the small intestine. If too much of one sugar is ingested, it can exhaust the transporters and cause unwanted fluid to move into the intestines. This leads to bloating, discomfort and even painful cramping. "By having two different sugars, the gut is able to absorb the carbs easier, helping to reduce gastrointestinal distress that can be common during exercise," says Jones. (Related: 5 Seemingly-Harmless Foods That Cause Belly Bloat)
Most sports drinks have about 4-8 percent carbs, meaning there are around 4 to 8 grams of carbs per 100 milliliters of fluid. A 6–8 percent carbohydrate concentration is similar to the amount of sugar and salt naturally found in the blood, so it allows the body to readily absorb the fluids quickly.
A fancy word to describe both sodium and potassium, electrolytes are also lost in sweat. Replacing them is an important part of staying hydrated because they promote fluid balance within the body. The cells need to have optimal levels of sodium and potassium to function properly, and those levels get thrown out of whack when you're dehydrated. Although sodium has gotten a bad reputation in the nutrition world, it's necessary for athletes to replace sodium losses during a tough workout to prevent dehydration. "While salt [aka sodium] losses can vary from person to person, losses are most dramatic with intense endurance activity," says Jones. (Related: How to Stay Hydrated When Training for an Endurance Race)
When do you actually need a sports drink?
Sports drinks are beneficial in certain situations. If you're exercising at moderate to high intensity for longer than an hour, a sports drink will keep performance at peak levels. "After around 60 minutes of exercise, carbohydrate stores in the muscles decline, as does blood sugar, which decreases your energy levels and makes exhaustion set in," says Jones. Athletes who train for several hours per day, such as marathon runners or triathletes, are among those who will benefit from sports drinks, says Asche.
Just sip lightly, as some sports drinks can cause stomach problems, due to the body's limited ability to absorb large amounts of carbs and fluid. Start with taking a few sips at a time and keep the dose low, say four ounces to start. If you don't have any GI distress, drink more. The amount you need depends on your body weight, sweat rate, sodium losses, and the intensity of the activity, but a good rule of thumb is eight ounces every 30 minutes following at least 60 minutes of exercise.
Different Types of Sports Drinks and Powders
If you've determined a sports drink is a good idea for you, you might be surprised to learn just how many options there are. Choosing which kind of sports drink comes down to personal preference, but Jones recommends powdered sports drinks that mix with water, and she suggests opting for no artificial flavors or colors whenever possible.
Ready-to-Drink Sports Drinks
Among the most popular options for sports drinks is the bottled kind in your beverage aisle. Living next to the soda on store shelves, it's no wonder these get such a bad rap. Yet, these options are convenient for the athlete on the go, who doesn't want to deal with tablets or powders. (Related: Megan Rapinoe On Recovery, Hydration, and Her Favorite Female Role Models In Sports)
- Gatorade (Buy It, $31 for 24, amazon.com) and Powerade (Buy It, $23 for 24, amazon.com) are two brands that probably come to mind. Both are very similar in terms of ingredients and flavors, such as sugar, glucose, sodium, potassium, natural flavors, and colors like yellow #5. Asche recommends the new Gatorade Organic to her clients because it's free of artificial colors and flavors. These two options seem very similar to, say Vitamin Water, but they have a better ratio of carbs and electrolytes for athletes. Whereas, Vitamin Water doesn't have any potassium and is lower in carbs and calories than traditional sports drinks.
- BODYARMOR (Buy It, $25 for 12, amazon.com) is a newish kid on the block that boasts more potassium than other sports drinks, thanks to its base of potassium-rich coconut water. If you're wondering if you need more potassium than sodium, the answer is probably not. You actually sweat out about 7 times more sodium than potassium. (Related: The Science-Backed Health Benefits of Coconut Water)
- There a variety of low-calorie sports drinks on the market, with new ones popping up constantly. With sugar being a major health concern, it's not surprising that many companies are making lower-sugar options or sports drinks with artificial sweeteners. That said, a 2016 review published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that drinking a higher sugar sports drink to fuel exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes did not "undo" the calories burnt while working out. In other words, when used as intended, drinking higher sugar sports drinks likely won't contribute to weight gain. Yet, lower-calorie ready-to-drink options, like G2 (Buy It, $10 for 12, amazon.com) and Nooma (Buy It, $29 for 12, amazon.com), provide around 30 calories and about half the sugar and same amount of electrolytes as regular sports drinks. These can be helpful for lower-intensity workouts that last longer than an hour, such as a leisurely bike ride, or shorter duration intense workouts that cause you to sweat profusely and need just a small amount of carb replacement.
Powdered Sports Drinks
Powdered packets allow you to prepare the drink yourself, which may require a bit more work than ready-to-drink bottles, but it's more affordable and cuts down on plastic. (Related: Cute Tumblers That Will Keep You Hydrated and Environmentally Woke)
Ideally, you'll follow the package instructions to obtain the right fluid, electrolyte, and carb balance, but you may want to add a bit more water if you have a sensitive stomach. There are a ton of powdered sports drinks to choose from, including:
- Skratch Labs (But It, $19 for 20, amazon.com) is a favorite among athletes because it uses natural ingredients such as cane sugar, lemon oil, and lime juice. It also has less sugar than other powdered sports drinks, with 4 percent carbs, making it a nice option for those who noticed GI issues with other formulas.
- Gatorade Endurance Formula (Buy It, $22 for 32-oz. container, amazon.com) has more electrolytes than any other sports drinks in any category, so it's a good option for heavy sweaters or hot weather conditions. If you're not sure if you're a heavy sweater, take notice if you end up with white film (that's salt) on your skin or a drenched shirt after a workout. If so, you sweat more than most. (Related: Is It Safe to Work Out In a Heat Wave?)
- Tailwind (Buy It, $17 for 7, amazon.com) has a "less sweet" taste than some other options, and it combines both glucose and sucrose to help with carb absorption.
- Liquid IV (Buy It, $24 for 16, amazon.com) is an electrolyte hydration mix that boasts twice the electrolytes of traditional sports drinks, 5 essential vitamins, simple and recognizable ingredients, and the use of "cellular transport technology" (CTT). The founders say their inspiration for using CTT came from a science called oral rehydration therapy, which was developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) to help save lives of children dying from dehydration in underdeveloped countries. They claim that Liquid IV's optimal ratio of sodium to glucose, water is transported into your body faster than drinking water alone. There hasn't been any research on this in the athlete population, but it could be worth a shot if you feel like traditional water or other sports drinks aren't cutting it.
- DripDrop (Buy It, $10 for 8, amazon.com) is very similar to Liquid IV, in that it was developed by a doctor with oral rehydration therapy in mind. The company claims that their patented formula provides medically relevant electrolyte levels consistent with WHO standards.
Sports Drink Tablets
Although dissolvable tablets are often advertised as hydration drinks for athletes, many only contain electrolytes. "None of these options will provide adequate carbohydrates, as they are meant to just replenish electrolyte losses in sweat," says Asche. The sugar in sports drinks is necessary for fluid absorption, but some athletes prefer to combine carbs from food with an electrolyte drink. If you choose one of these options, Jones recommends pairing with honey or dried fruit for some carbohydrates.
- Nuun (Buy It, $24 for 4 tubes/40 servings, amazon.com) tablets contain 300 mg sodium and 150 mg potassium, which is a bit higher than ready-to-drink and powdered sports drinks. They do have a bit of stevia leaf, which gives a sweet taste without sugar alcohols, which can upset the stomach.
- Gu Hydration Drink Tab (Buy It, $24 for 4 tubes/48 servings, amazon.com) are extremely similar to Nuun with 320 mg of sodium, 55 mg of potassium and sweetened with Stevia and cane sugar.