Sports Drinks: Helpful or Harmful?

By Perrin Braun, August 1, 2022

athlete hydration

Advertising can often be misleading. Food manufacturers want you to assume that since sports drinks contain the word “sport” on their labels, they must be beneficial for people who play sports or other forms of activity. New sports drinks appear on the market each day. Flavors like “organic cherry” and “blueberry açaí” are meant to conjure up thoughts of superfoods and enhanced performance for athletes and non-athletes alike. Many brands make claims about helping you perform better during athletic events and even suggest they will improve your health. But do sports drinks really enhance performance? Are all sports drinks created equal?

Hydration station

Here are the facts: hydration is necessary to maintain peak optimal performance. Water regulates your body temperature, lubricates your joints, and transports nutrients throughout your body. Staying hydrated is particularly important during exercise because you lose water through sweat. The longer and more intensely you work out, the more necessary it becomes to get fluid into your body. When you don’t replenish your fluids, it becomes harder for your heart to circulate blood.  A decrease in blood and plasma volume can contribute to muscle cramps, dizziness, fatigue, heat stroke, and heat exhaustion.

Click here to learn how InsideTracker can recommend healthy beverage options that fit your unique taste preferences and hydration requirements!


Do athletes have any particular hydration requirements?

Depending on the intensity of the activity, there is a significant variability in the amount of sweating and water loss that takes place during exercise. However, there are two ways to gauge whether you’ve hydrated enough:

Monitor your urine – light-colored urine means you’re probably adequately hydrated, but dark, concentrated urine can indicate that you’re not drinking enough water Weigh yourself before and after workouts – weight loss that occurs directly after a workout is likely to be caused by a fluid reduction, so make sure to drink plenty of water after exercising Check out the InsideTracker Performance plan to make sure that you have enough electrolytes to stay healthy and reach your personal fitness potential

So, how much water is enough? Many athletes use these basic guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine as a reference point, and then adjust their water intake to fit their hydration needs:

At least 4 hours before exercise, drink about 2-3 milliliters (mL) of water or a sport beverage per pound (lb) of body weight. For instance, a 150-lb athlete needs to drink 300-450 mL, which equals about 10-15 fl oz of liquid Consume approximately 8 fl oz (1 cup) of fluids every 15 minutes After exercise, consume about 16-24 fl oz of fluid for every pound of body weight lost during exercise

Twitter hydration

What about sports drinks?

Your body loses electrolytes when it sweats. Chloride, potassium, and sodium are major electrolytes, which are minerals in your blood, urine, and bodily fluids that contain an electric charge. Your body’s cells use electrolytes to carry electrical impulses throughout your body. These electrical charges help your cells communicate with each other and give you the ability to taste, see, smell, touch, and hear.  Many health experts say that after about an hour of strenuous exercise, you need to increase your intake of both electrolytes and fluids. Keep in mind that fluid needs vary with type, duration and intensity of exercise, gender, body weight, temperature, humidity, and how much you sweat. Enter: sports drinks.

When food manufacturers first started producing sports drinks, they were tailored to elite athletes who were sweating significantly during long workouts. For instance, Gatorade was originally invented in 1965 by a research team at the University of Florida to help football players re-hydrate after workouts in the humid Florida temperatures. The earliest version of the sports drink contained a simple mixture of water, sodium, sugar, potassium, phosphate, and lemon juice.

But what’s really behind the label of today’s sports drinks? The primary ingredients in many athletic beverages include glucose, sucrose, fructose, or high-fructose corn syrup. Many sports drinks even contain as much sugar as a can of soda, which can impede any weight-loss goals. Sodas and sports drinks that are high in sugar are inappropriate for shorter or less intense workouts.

However, the sugar in sports drinks can be beneficial for people who are exercising more intensely or working out for longer periods of time. It can provide ready-to-use fuel for someone who is jogging for three hours or mountain biking. Many people are also turned off by plain water, so if a little flavor helps you drink more, then you might want to consider a sports drink.

In general, if you are performing an intense level of exercise for over an hour, you may need to replace the carbohydrates that you burn during exercise and electrolytes that you lose through sweating. For intense exercise sessions, drink about 20 ounces of a sports drink for every hour that you exercise, starting after the first hour. For exercise events lasting longer than 1 hour, cold sports drinks containing 6%-8% carbohydrates, sodium, and potassium are of greater benefit than water alone, helping to replace the fluids lost from sweating. If your workouts are not that long, you’re probably fine with just drinking water.


How are vitamin waters different?

Most vitamin waters are similar to sports drinks, but contain added vitamins. If you’re eating a balanced and varied diet, you don’t really need all those extra vitamins. Keep in mind that beverages that are flavored with fruits like “pomegranate” and “açaí” are usually just artificially sweetened or flavored and don’t contain the nutritional benefits that real fruit provides.


So why are sports drinks so popular?

Simple: they taste good. In order to entice potential consumers, sugar, artificial flavoring, and coloring are added to most sports drinks. In fact, there are several brands of sports beverages that don’t contain any electrolytes at all—they’re just flavored water! So, if you’re concerned with your fluid and electrolyte intake, be sure to check the label before you buy.

If you’re watching your wallet, but still enjoy the taste of sports drinks, you can make them at home for a small percentage of the cost. For instance, you can mix 100 milliliters of orange juice concentrate with 1 liter of water and a pinch of salt. You can experiment with different types of juices and vary the amount of water that you include to make it more or less concentrated. Happy hydrating!

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