Keys to the Game 2: Sports Drinks

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D., President, Sideline Sports Doc, LLC

In the last post I wrote about water- how important it is for human beings whether they are athletes or not, and how I think water has gotten an undeserved bad rap.  Part of the reason water is sometimes viewed as undesirable is due to the incredible success of “sports drinks.”

What is a “sports drink”?

Sports drinks are a combination of water, carbohydrates (such as glucose, sucrose, and fructose), and electrolytes (for example sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium). The theory behind sports drinks is that they provide the necessary fluids an active person needs but they can also help maintain energy levels by replacing carbohydrates that are used by muscles during exercise and by replacing the electrolytes that are lost with sweating. Sports drinks can improve fluid absorption in the stomach and small intestine due to the glucose and sodium content (this is a good thing). So, sports drinks can have a positive effect on performance.

When does an athlete need a sports drink?

Most scientific studies show that water is fine as a fluid replacement if you’re exercising for an hour or less.  However, if you’re exercising for longer than an hour a sports drink is a better choice. Also, if you don’t like water and will not drink it after exercise then you would be better off drinking a flavored water or sports drink rather than not having anything at all. Many people do find that the better the liquid tastes the more they can drink. This is important for some kids who can be very particular about flavor.

How much salt (sodium chloride) and carbohydrate (sugar) should be in a kid’s sports drink?

We don’t have scientific data to answer this question for child, adolescent, or teenage athletes.  Even for adults the few studies that have looked at this question have not come up with definite answers.  The best we can say is that the sports drink should have some sodium in it and some carbohydrate in it.  One thing that we can comment on is the type of carbohydrate in the drink…

Some carbohydrates are better than others. Try to avoid high fructose corn syrup.

The carbohydrates found in sports drinks are generally called “simple sugars”, for example glucose, sucrose, and fructose.  Young athletes usually tolerate glucose and sucrose, but fructose can sometimes cause stomach cramping in people who are “fructose intolerant”.  One type of carbohydrate I would recommend that you avoid if possible is high fructose corn syrup, sometimes referred to as “corn sugar”.  There is some research suggesting that high fructose corn syrup is processed differently than simple sugars by the body and may lead to increased body fat or other health concerns.  Even though the research is mixed, a wise decision would be to just avoid high fructose corn syrup. We have plenty of choices for sports drinks that don’t contain high fructose corn syrup.

Here’s what you will find in a few commonly available sports drinks:

(I have no financial interest in any of these products.  I purchased them from our local supermarket.)

 

Brand (per 8 ounce serving) Calories Carbohydrates (grams) Sodium (milligrams) Type of Carbohydrate When to Use it
Gatorade® G-Series Prime01 (note: this is 4 ounces) 100 25 110 Sucrose, dextrose 15 minutes before exercise
Gatorade® Perform 02 50 14 110 Sucrose, dextrose Before or during exercise
Gatorade® G2 low calorie 20 5 110 Sucrose Before or during exercise
Glaceau Vitamin Water® Energy 50 13 0 Fructose, cane sugar Not for exercise, ok up to one hour pre-exercise
Powerade® Zero 0 0 100 None Fine for exercise lasting less than an hour
Powerade® 54 14 100 High fructose corn syrup Before or during exercise
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