So do you? Well, it depends…
Whenever I am at a gym, martial arts school or fitness centre I see guys (yes, mostly males) gulping down sports drinks such as Gatorade, Powerade, or something made from a powder. I often ask myself, is that drink necessary in this situation? To answer this I usually observe the individual’s activity, and more often than not, I answer my own question with a resounding ‘no’. I want to be clear though, there is a lot of confusion about sports drinks and hydration in general. Hopefully this brief article will clear-up some of the misinformation to help you understand how to drink effectively, and what to drink when you do.
Sports Drinks as a Marketable Product
Let’s be honest. We all know that nutritional supplements and ergogenic aids (performance enhancing supplements) are big business. They are huge in competitive and elite sporting circles, as they genuinely can give an edge to a competitor, and also because when the public see their favourite athletes slurping on a cold sports brew at half-time, this is good for sales. The companies that make them know that the real money is in marketing these products to the general population. So, companies have a vested interest in seeing sports drinks sold to Joe and Josephine Public in order to increase profit. Does that mean sports drinks don’t work or are unnecessary? Read on…
What is a Sports Drink
For the purpose of this article a sports drink will be considered to contain electrolytes (sodium and potassium) and carbohydrates. Most commercial sports drinks contain both, but sometimes the electrolytes are missing. Typically a before and during exercise sports drink should contain 6-8% solutes, so a 500mL drink would 30-40 g of carbohydrate plus electrolytes. A post-exercise recovery sports drink would likely have a higher carbohydrate load.
The Importance of Being… Hydrated
Water has a number of important roles in your body. With 60% of your total bodyweight made up by water, suffice to say, if you run out of water you die. With only 1-2% of body water loss your heart has to work harder and your aerobic endurance decreases. Continued fluid loss ensures further consequences. When exercising, fluid loss is most likely from sweating, particularly in hot climates. The highest recorded sweat rate was 3.7 litres per hour, by Alberto Salazar when preparing for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. Replacing fluid lost from sweating when exercising is very important. Rule of thumb, the more you sweat, the more you should drink.
When to Drink
It is a great idea to start drinking before you begin your exercise. During exercise a consumption rate of approximately 250mL every 15 minutes should be sufficient for really intense or long duration, sweaty training. For lower intensity or shorter exercise periods, periodically sipping water is fine. Remember not to wait until you are thirsty! Once you feel thirsty you are already 1-2% dehydrated. Continue drinking once you have finished exercising to ensure adequate recovery.
What to Drink
If you are going to be exercising for less than 45 minutes, then water alone is probably sufficient. Should that 45 minutes be high intensity, high sweat yielding exercise, it will be important to replenish both electrolytes and macronutrients soon after exercising, and a sports drink during/after the session might be worthwhile to decrease your recovery time.
Have you ever experienced muscle cramps during or after exercise? This is likely due to a loss of electrolytes from your body through sweat. If you are anything like me, you will have noticed that sweat tastes salty. This is because it has a high concentration of sodium. Electrolytes are essential to effective muscle contractions, so when you are losing them quickly through sweating, you will need to replace them reasonably quickly. The fastest way – a sports drink. Longer duration vigorous exercise, high intensity exercise, and exercise in hot climates are three contexts in which using a sports drink does make sense.
Where sports drinks truly come into their own is competition events. If you are competing in a long duration (+45 minutes) event or have multiple events on the same day sports drinks can be vital to maintaining high performance. This is even more essential in hot climates or events that require high intensity physical work.
To Drink or Not to Drink?
Definitely drink! If you are trying to decide whether that drink should be water or a sports drink, ensure that you consider the ambient temperature of the climate you will be exercising in, the intensity of exercise, and the duration of exercise, before making your choice.