Whenever I am at a gym, martial arts school or fitness centre, I see guys (yes, mostly males) gulping down sports drinks like Gatorade, Powerade, or something made from a powder. I have often asked myself, “Is that drink necessary in this situation?” To answer this, I usually observe the individual’s activity, and more often than not answer my own question with a resounding NO. Although, I want to be clear that there is a lot of general confusion about sports drinks and hydration. I hope to clear-up some of the misinformation, and help you understand how to drink effectively, and what to drink when you need hydration.
Sports drinks: The marketable product
What is a Sports Drink? For the purpose of this article, any drink containing electrolytes (sodium and potassium) and carbohydrates are considered sports drinks. 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. For example, a 500mL drink would have 30-40g of carbohydrates plus electrolytes. A post-exercise recovery sports drink would likely have a higher carbohydrate load.
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.
So then, do you or don’t you need sports drinks?
The importance of being… hydrated
Water plays a number of important roles in your body. Since 60% of your total body weight is made up by water, suffice to say, if you run out of water you die. After losing only 1-2% of body water, your heart will have to work harder and your aerobic endurance decreases. Of course, continued fluid loss ensures further consequences. When exercising, body water loss most likely occurs 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 fluids when exercising is very important.
Rule of thumb: the more you sweat, the more you should drink. It is a great idea to start drinking before you begin your exercise. During really intense exercise or sweaty, long duration training, a consumption rate of approximately 250mL every 15 minutes should be sufficient. For lower intensity or shorter exercise periods, periodically sipping water is fine. Remember, do 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 do drink?
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 for 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. Sports drinks can also be good during activities that require high intensity physical work.
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, then sports drinks can be vital to maintaining high performance. This is even more essential in hot climates.
If you are trying to decide whether you should drink water or a sports drink, ensure that you consider these 3 things:
- the ambient temperature of the climate in which you are exercising
- the intensity of exercise
- the duration of exercise
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. A sports drink during and/or after the session might also be worthwhile to decrease your recovery time.
Regardless of whether you choose water or sports drinks, the most important part is to stay hydrated. Water is good for all occasions. Sports drinks are more useful for intense, long-duration, or sweaty activities. Remember, don’t wait till you’re thirsty. Drink up!