When I was a child, sports drinks such as Lucozade were sold in glass bottles and were primarily found at chemists or pharmacies, which gave them a sort of medical endorsement – well, at least that’s how it came across to me and my father, who was the one buying them for me. I played a lot of sport in my childhood and teens; somewhere in the region of 10+ hours per week were spent training and playing football for my school or club side, or just playing sport with friends. I burned up a lot of energy and although our knowledge of nutrition back then wasn’t what it is now, I could see the logic in replenishing my depleted energy stores with a sugary drink.
An athlete who becomes dehydrated may put themselves at risk of fatigue and impaired performance. For example, a loss of 2% bodyweight (via drop in fluids) could reduce your maximal aerobic capacity by 10-20%.
Around that same time, sports drinks companies were beginning to sponsor sports teams. I clearly remember my sporting heroes, such as Liverpool and England footballer John Barnes, advertising how isotonic drinks improved performance. These days there are many sports drinks on the market, they still sponsor sporting teams, and they are readily available in supermarkets, vending machines, health food shops, and online. In fact, Food Business News estimated that the sports drinks industry was worth $7.4 billion in the US alone in 20121; just think what it is now worth worldwide!
My concern with the popularity of sports drinks is that although there is evidence of how important they can be in improving performance during a sporting event – as discussed by Anita Bean in her book, Sports Nutrition2 – I feel that there is a general misunderstanding of this information by consumers who may not even do enough activity to warrant a sports drink post-training, let alone during their workout. Either way, the amount of excess sugar (and sources of sugar) these products contain are not conducive to a balanced diet.
Do You Really Need a Sports Drink?
Firstly, we need to address the main reasons that athletes use sports drinks or fluids whilst competing.
Approximately 75% of the energy we put into exercising is converted into heat, which is then dissipated from the body in the form of sweat and vapour as we breathe out. The intensity of the exercise and the heat and humidity of your environment are key factors in how much fluid you will lose; as an example, a person exercising strenuously in a warm environment could lose up to 2 litres of fluid per hour. An athlete who becomes dehydrated may put themselves at risk of fatigue and impaired performance. For example, a loss of 2% bodyweight (via drop in fluids) could reduce your maximal aerobic capacity by 10-20%.2
It’s not just endurance athletes who are at risk of fatigue due to dehydration. According to Sports Nutrition by Jeukendrup and Gleeson, the capacity to perform high intensity exercise such as sprinting, can be reduced by as much as 45% due to pre-training dehydration.3 So drinking enough fluids before you train is important too – although it’s worth noting that attempting to ‘hyper-hydrate’ before activity doesn’t work and you’ll most likely just feel full and nauseous as you compete.
As well as replacing fluids, sports drinks also replenish glycogen stores and electrolytes. Glycogen is liquid energy – it is the form that carbohydrate takes once it has been digested, so drinking it in liquid form can speed up the process of utilising it. Electrolytes are mineral salts (such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium) that are dissolved in the body’s fluid. They do not directly affect performance, but they do increase the urge to drink more fluids and stimulate water absorption at a cellular level.
You can see why sports drinks are certainly a necessity for athletes competing at events. But the honest truth is, most people who undertake general exercise to keep healthy are not pushing themselves to the intensity or endurance levels of competitive athletes, so plain water will be enough to keep them hydrated before, during, and after exercise.
So, before grabbing a sports drink, ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I taking part in high intensity exercise that requires optimum energy and hydration levels, or which will last more than 90 minutes?
- Am I exercising in an environment that is hot or humid, risking faster dehydration?
- Am I exercising for reasons other than general health, weight-loss, or aesthetics?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, chances are you regularly compete in sporting events, be they team sports or endurance events such as long distance running or cycling, so you’re likely to benefit from the use of sports drinks during competition.
What Type of Sports Drink Do You Need?
Your choice of drink will depend upon the type of exercise you are doing and what your biggest risk factors of performance depletion are. For example, an athlete competing in a distance running event may start off with a hypotonic drink, but once they go beyond 90 minutes may swap to a hypertonic option to replenish lost glycogen.
TYPE OF DRINK
|WHAT DOES IT DO?||
Carbohydrates PER 100ML
Low osmolality*. Absorbed by the body faster than plain water.
|< 4g per 100ml|
Low osmolality, but also provides enough CHO for refuelling.
|4-8g per 100ml|
High osmolality. Slower absorption of fluids but good for refuelling on glycogen.
|> 8g per 100ml|
* Osmolality is the amount of carbohydrate and electrolytes diluted in the fluid per 100ml.
Making Your Own Drinks
Unfortunately, shop bought sports nutrition drinks are not always made out of the best ingredients – especially the source of carbohydrate, which is typically a variation of fructose syrup, plus artificial stabilisers, preservatives, and colourings added to extend shelf life. The good news is, it is very easy to make your own versions using natural ingredients, therefore retaining total control of any added sugar.
Below are three simple, Paleo-friendly recipes for effective DIY sports nutrition. All recipes are simple to make – place ingredients into a blender and blend on full power for 30 seconds.
- Uses water, fresh lemon and lime juice, sea salt, and raw honey.
For the full recipe and method head on over to Everyday Roots.
- Uses coconut water, mineral water, fresh strawberries, ice, sea salt, and raw honey.
For the full recipe and method head on over to Everyday Roots.
- Uses herbal tea/coconut water, fresh fruit juice, sea salt, calcium, magnesium, and raw honey.
For the full recipe and method head on over to Wellness Mama.
Remember, these ingredients can be adapted to meet the needs of your exercise intensity. Refer to the table above to check recommended carbohydrate levels for hypertonic, isotonic, and hypotonic versions.
Have you tried to make your own sports drink? Feel free to share your own tips and recipes in the comments section below.
- Berry, D. (2013, 27th August). Sports Drink Evolution. In Food Business News. Retrieved 18 February 2016, from http://www.foodbusinessnews.net/articles/news_home/Consumer_Trends/2013/08/Sports_drink_evolution.aspx?ID=%7B6AA703FC-F917-444F-9581-C48A48C2E3DD%7D&cck=1
- Bean, A. (2003). The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition (4th ed). London: A & C Black Publishers Ltd.
- Jeukendrup, A., Gleeson, M. (2010). Sports Nutrition. (2nd ed.). United States: Human Kinetics.
- Goodhall, C. (2013, 3rd May). Make your own electrolyte drink. In Everyday Roots. Retrieved 18 February 2016, from http://everydayroots.com/homemade-energy-drink
- Wellnessmamacom. (2011, June 13). Natural Electrolyte Sports Drink Recipe. In Wellness Mama. Retrieved 18 February 2016, from http://wellnessmama.com/2575/natural-sports-drink