Sports drinks are on track to become a $55 billion industry by 2018, so it’s no wonder that they seem to be everywhere — stadium sidelines, the gym, even vending machines. Take a trip to your local health store and you’re likely to be overwhelmed by an entire aisle of sports drink options, each claiming to be “the next big thing” that you absolutely must try now.
But do these colored drinks and flavored powders actually have an advantage over plain water, and if so, what kinds should you be drinking? We’ve put together a quick primer on basic sports drink science below, then dive into popular brands and if/when you should drink them.
We’ve all seen athletes chugging Gatorade on the sidelines like the win depends on it. But what actually sets it apart from colored sugar water? First of all, chemically speaking there are three main types of sports drinks: hypotonic (low levels of electrolytes/salts and sugars), isotonic (medium levels of electrolytes/salts and sugars plus some carbs), and hypertonic (high levels of electrolytes/salts and sugars plus more carbs). Hypotonic drinks are usually consumed before a workout to quickly hydrate the cells in preparation. Isotonic drinks are usually consumed during a workout to replenish the electrolytes and carbs that are being lost through sweat. Finally, hypertonic drinks are usually consumed after in order to restore spent glycogen.
The longer you exercise and the more you sweat, the more important it is to quickly restore those nutrients through a sports drink, which your body can absorb much more quickly than food. However, if you only exercise moderately or don’t sweat very much, you can probably save the money and skip the expensive sports drinks and powders. The facts are that nothing can replace good old H2O when it comes to hydration, and the majority of your fluid intake should be water, even when you’re working out a lot. That being said, when consumed judiciously, sports can be a great supplement to an athletic program or workout regime. (And whatever you’re drinking, it’s better to space out small, frequent sips, which promotes rehydration more than sporadic chugging.)
Traditional sports drinks
There are facts behind the hype surrounding sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade — the carbs help replenish the energy you expend while working out, and the electrolytes replace those lost through sweat. Since they’re in liquid form, your body will process the sports drinks faster than food, and the flavor also often encourages people to drink more fluid than they would plain water, increasing hydration. If you’re working out more than an hour or work out very intensely, adding a sports drink or two to your water hydration routine can help replenish those lost electrolytes, particularly sodium, which water doesn’t contain. In fact, chugging too much water in one go can actually dilute your electrolyte concentration too much and signal your body that it should get rid of the excess fluid through urination. Look for lower-sugar sports drinks so you don’t accidentally overload on it, and make sure you don’t rely on them when you should be getting carbs from solid food instead.
When you’re tired, it can be tempting to grab a coffee or a Red Bull to get fueled up right before a long, taxing workout session. However, this artificial energy high comes at a price: such drinks rely on caffeine and sugar for their energy-boosting properties, which in turn can slow down your ability to absorb fluids, and therefore increase dehydration. The caffeine can also increase heart rate and blood pressure while simultaneously limiting the blood vessels’ abilities to increase blood flow and oxygenate the body during exercise. If you’re feeling tired, do a lower-intensity workout that day, or take a nap instead to re-fuel your body naturally.
No doubt you’ve seen that guy in the gym — the one who always chugs a milkshake-looking concoction as soon he knocks out his last set of bicep curls. It’s a tenet of bodybuilding that you should drink a protein shake (usually whey, casein, or soy) within an hour of finishing a workout in order to promote muscle growth. While the jury is actually out on the one-hour rule, adding extra protein powder to your diet can help you grow or gain muscle, ease the start of a new workout program, and speed up recovery time. Protein powders can also be used as a snack or an occasional meal replacement to promote weight loss, although they’re not a magic bullet. However, immediately before, during, and after a workout you should focus more on your carb intake in order to get instant energy you’ll need to push through.
While not technically a drink, you could very well find energy gels shelved alongside other sports drinks. These liquid supplements are used by marathon runners and other endurance athletes to restock glycogen so they can keep going. Glycogen is the form the body stores carbs in, and it gets converted to glucose, which is a major source of energy. If an athlete runs out of glycogen, he or she will “hit the wall,” experience extreme fatigue, and be unable to continue. Most people’s bodies store enough glycogen for a typical-length workout, but if you’re a serious endurance athlete, consuming energy gels early in the race will give the glycogen enough time to be processed and released by your body for when you need it later in the race.
The coconut craze has swept the nation for good, and “nature’s sport drink” is here to stay. The appeal of coconut water is that it is low in calories, rich in potassium (its main draw), and fat- and cholesterol-free; it also contains less sugar than the average sports drink. However, most commercially-available coconut waters have been processed in such a way that they contain low amounts of sodium, an important electrolyte that is lost through sweat. Sodium-enhanced coconut water has been found to be as effective as traditional sports drinks at after-workout hydration, but you’ll have to read the label carefully to ensure that the coconut water actually contains as much sodium as it says it does. Additionally, if you sweat a lot or are a very salty sweater (and therefore lose a lot of sodium), you might want to look into other hydration alternatives.