This blog article was updated on July 1, 2023.
There’s a plethora of sports drinks on the market, and you’d have to be living under a rock not to know it. But are they really necessary? Do they deliver on what they promise? And is it possible to make your own sports drink for a lot less money?
Let’s take those questions one at a time!
Are sports drinks necessary?
For people in certain situations, yes. For example, during and after prolonged exercise (longer than 60 minutes) in hot temperatures, some sports drinks can help replenish electrolytes that the body excretes through sweat. Electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, carry electrical charges that help stimulate muscles and nerves. They also regulate the amount of fluids throughout your body, which affects blood pressure, blood volume, and cellular function.
In a nutshell, electrolytes are good, and if you’re a “salty sweater” – that is, someone that loses a large amount of sodium in their sweat – it’s especially important that you replenish sodium during and after intense activity. Sports drinks make it easy to do that.
So are sports drinks delivering on their promises?
To answer that, let’s take a closer look at what’s actually in them. The most predominant electrolyte we lose when we sweat is sodium, with its anion chloride coming in a close second. Thus, sodium chloride is the most important electrolyte needed in a sports drink. Interestingly, there’s a product on the market called Nuun Active that touts itself as having the “optimal blend of electrolytes for athletic performance”, but upon closer inspection, one finds that Nuun Active contains sodium citrate, not sodium chloride.
Some sports drinks also contain minerals such as calcium and magnesium, but the amount of calcium and magnesium we lose in sweat is so small, that sports scientists believe that they are not necessary to include in a sports drink (adding them will increase the price of the sports drink). Of note is that magnesium citrate can have a laxative effect, which is not what most athletes want on race day!
According to WebMD, oral magnesium citrate products are “used to clean stool from the intestines before surgery or certain bowel procedures (e.g., colonoscopy, radiography), usually with other products”, and may also be used to relieve constipation. “Magnesium citrate is a saline laxative that is thought to work by increasing fluid in the small intestine. It usually results in a bowel movement within 30 minutes to 3 hours.”
Check the label of the popular sports drink PowerBar Endurance and you’ll find magnesium citrate in the list of ingredients. How much, you ask? Once scoop contains 4% of the DV for magnesium. That’s about 12 mg per scoop. That’s not a huge amount, but if you’re sipping this drink over a 1-3 hour run or ride, you just might find yourself in a mad dash for the porta-potty. Kind of gives new meaning to the phrase “know before you go”, doesn’t it?
Another ploy that manufacturers use to get you to buy their sport drink, is to fill it up with vitamins, which are completely unnecessary during exercise. Some of these drinks contain zero calories which is fine for sipping throughout the day but again, not during exercise and especially exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes when you need carbohydrates to fuel your muscles.
One leading sports drink likes to brag that its product uses “non-GMO-sourced dextrose” to help the body “absorb fluids and nutrients faster”. Sounds impressive, right? However, there’s not a single research study showing that non-GMO-sourced dextrose increases the rate of fluid or nutrient absorption. While it’s true that sugar in the form of sucrose or dextrose can increase the rate of fluid absorption, it doesn’t have to be “non-GMO-sourced”. Again, they’re trying to make the product sound healthy when it's no healthier than any other sports drink.
The fact is, there are only three things your body needs during prolonged exercise: water, sodium, and some form of carbohydrate.
The American College of Sports Medicine position statement on exercise and fluid replacement states the following:
1) It is recommended that individuals consume a nutritionally balanced diet and drink adequate fluids during the 24-hr period before an event, especially during the period that includes the meal prior to exercise, to promote proper hydration before exercise or competition.
2) It is recommended that individuals drink about 500 ml (about 17 ounces) of fluid about 2 h before exercise to promote adequate hydration and allow time for excretion of excess ingested water.
3) During exercise, athletes should start drinking early and at regular intervals in an attempt to consume fluids at a rate sufficient to replace all the water lost through sweating (i.e., body weight loss), or consume the maximal amount that can be tolerated.
4) It is recommended that ingested fluids be cooler than ambient temperature [between 15 degrees and 22 degrees C (59 degrees and 72 degrees F])] and flavored to enhance palatability and promote fluid replacement. Fluids should be readily available and served in containers that allow adequate volumes to be ingested with ease and with minimal interruption of exercise. Fluids should be readily available and served in containers that allow adequate volumes to be ingested with ease and with minimal interruption of exercise.
5) Addition of proper amounts of carbohydrates and/or electrolytes to a fluid replacement solution is recommended for exercise events of duration greater than 1 h since it does not significantly impair water delivery to the body and may enhance performance. During exercise lasting less than 1 h, there is little evidence of physiological or physical performance differences between consuming a carbohydrate-electrolyte drink and plain water.
6) During intense exercise lasting longer than 1 h, it is recommended that carbohydrates be ingested at a rate of 30-60 grams per hour to maintain oxidation of carbohydrates and delay fatigue. This rate of carbohydrate intake can be achieved without compromising fluid delivery by drinking 600-1200 ml/hour of solutions containing 4%-8% carbohydrates. The carbohydrates can be sugars (glucose or sucrose) or starch (e.g., maltodextrin).
7) Inclusion of sodium (0.5-0.7 grams per liter of water) in the rehydration solution ingested during exercise lasting longer than 1 h is recommended since it may be advantageous in enhancing palatability, promoting fluid retention, and possibly preventing hyponatremia in certain individuals who drink excessive quantities of fluid. There is little physiological basis for the presence of sodium in oral rehydration solution for enhancing intestinal water absorption as long as sodium is sufficiently available from the previous meal.
Can you make your own sport drink?
Yes, you can! It’s easy and cheap! Here's a recipe for a sports drink that I use all the time (5% carbohydrate). Drink up!
Homemade Sports Drink Recipe
4 Tbs. sugar* 4 cups cold water 1/8 tsp. salt 2-3 Tbs. lemon juice
Mix all ingredients together and serve!
*You can use 2-3 tablespoons if you're concerned about sugar intake but keep in mind that research shows a 5-6% sucrose solution to be best for energy use during endurance exercise. If you eat a low-sugar diet, I wouldn't be too concerned about having this low amount of sugar in a sports drink that is intended for use during exercise.
Barnes KA, Anderson ML, Stofan JR, Dalrymple KJ, Reimel AJ, Roberts TJ, Randell RK, Ungaro CT, Baker LB. Normative data for sweating rate, sweat sodium concentration, and sweat sodium loss in athletes: An update and analysis by sport. J Sports Sci. 2019 Oct;37(20):2356-2366.
Strength and Conditioning Journal 34(4):p 49-54, August 2012. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Fulltext/2012/08000/Exercise_and_Hydration__Individualizing_Fluid.9.aspx
Want help with sports nutrition? Schedule a Discovery Call with me OR sign up for my Triathlete: Fueling Your Training Journey with Nutrition program on how to fuel your endurance workouts the right way!