Wondering if sports drinks are a necessary part of your training? Trying to decide which sports drink is right for you? Learn what to look for and what to avoid – and how to avoid marketing hype – with these guidelines.
Since Gatorade hit the collegiate football scene in 1965 — the answer to the University of Florida players being plagued by electrolyte and carbohydrate losses during practice — sports drinks have become ever present, sought after by everyone from eight-year-old soccer players to long-distance triathletes, and all varieties of athletes in between.
But do you really need what’s in that bottle?
Electrolytes, Calories, or Both?
Since I live, train and coach athletes in nutrition in Arizona, electrolyte replacement is at the forefront of my mind, especially during the scorching summer months. But it is important to differentiate between the need to replenish electrolytes (sodium) and the need to replenish calories. Many products have both calories (in the form of carbohydrates) and electrolytes.
A lot of workouts aren’t long enough to require calorie replacement, but they do require electrolytes, especially when it’s hot. So the superfluous calories a person consumes as part of that calorie-laden sports drink are then stored as fat in the body — not cool. Unnecessary carb intake during workouts does not encourage the body to utilize internal fat stores for fuel; it just makes the body more reliant on dietary carbs and messes with blood sugar.
When Do You Need a Sports Drink?
There are times when workouts require calorie replacement and when a sports drink can make sense and add convenience. Generally, workouts longer than two to three hours require calorie replacement. If you’re working out at high intensity, or in a very hot and or humid climate, you’ll likely require calories sooner.
Shorter workouts, lower intensity workouts, and those in mild climates often do not require calorie replacement but demand electrolytes. In this case, implementing a low- or no-calorie electrolyte replacement option into your training regimen is a good idea. Examples of electrolyte-only replacement include NUUN, Elete, UCAN Hydrate, Salt Stick, and Base Salts.
Think about the type of workout you have that day, and hydrate accordingly. Don’t just default to a sugar-loaded sports drink.
What About Ingredients?
Ingredient lists are important in my world, and as an athlete, you should be even more concerned about the fuel going into your body. When considering a sports drink, check the label. Do you know what all of the ingredients are? Yellow 6? Red 40? These are dyes that have been linked to cancer. Why are they in your sports drink?
Search for a cleaner alternative. Sports drink manufacturers like BodyArmor and UCAN are striving for this: no dyes, natural flavors and higher quality sugars.
Don’t succumb to the idea that because you are an endurance athlete, you must guzzle Gatorade or other sugary drinks like it’s 1965. Be kind to your body and search out better options: ones that refuel and rehydrate you without the risks or unnatural ingredients. And only use these drinks when the workout demands it.