The purpose of sports drinks is to rehydrate and refuel your body while you’re doing exercise. And when you’re working up a sweat over a long period of time, they can certainly be more effective than drinking water alone. But when should you or shouldn’t you chug back a sports drink? And what do all those mysterious ingredients do? 

There was a news story just a week ago about Pittsburg Pirates baseball player Sean Rodriguez being pulled from the game in the third innings. None too happy about it, he lost his head and unleashed a fury of punches on a Gatorade cooler! This was probably not the best way to treat an inanimate object, especially since he might have benefitted from a cup of the sports drink after such an intense burst of energy.

Or not…

According to the latest guidelines for carbohydrate intake during sport, you don’t truly benefit from a sports drink any more than you would from a drink of water unless you are exercising your body for more than 45 minutes. Or you are a heavy sweater (whichever comes first). After this time, the higher intake of carbohydrates found in sports drinks have been associated with boosted performance and endurance. And this is what sports drinks are primarily designed to do – help your body refuel and rehydrate during exercise.

But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t necessarily down a sports drink any earlier than 45 minutes into a game or training session. In fact, you can benefit from drinking them before you play a sport. The carbohydrates will top up your muscles’ glycogen levels, which is converted into glucose for use as energy, while the sodium will help you maintain your cells’ fluid balance, transmit nerve impulses throughout your body and help your muscles contract and relax.

Slurping a sports drink after a game or training can also be worthwhile. It will replace fluids lost during sweating and replenish your glycogen stores, assisting in your body’s nutritional recovery.

The carbohydrates

These really are the backbone of any sports drink, which makes sense given that carbohydrates are a key fuel source for exercise, especially during prolonged continuous or high-intensity exercise. If an athlete doesn’t get enough carbohydrates into their system it can result in fatigue, an inability to train hard, impaired performance and reduced immunity.

Most sports drinks offer a blend of carbohydrates such as sucrose, glucose, fructose and galactose. Ideally, the drink should contain less than eight per cent in carbohydrates. Higher levels can prevent the process of food leaving the stomach while exercising. You’ll find that most prominent brands have 6-8 per cent carbohydrates.

The electrolytes (sodium, magnesium, potassium and calcium)

Serious athletes will require more sodium than is present in a commercial sports drink, but aiming for those brands with a slightly higher sodium content can be helpful.

The latest evidence shows that significant magnesium isn’t lost during exercise, so topping up this mineral isn’t really necessary.

Conversely, the addition of potassium in a sports drink is especially important for athletes. Potassium helps to store the carbohydrates that fuel your muscles, and the right amount of this mineral in your body is essential for aiding full muscle movement. When you don’t get enough potassium in your diet, your nervous and muscular systems can quickly become compromised.

About 99 per cent of calcium in the body is stored in the skeletal system, while the remaining one per cent is found in other cells including muscle cells. Exercise may encourage the loss of calcium, and so drinking a little in a sports drink could be beneficial. This would especially be the case for those athletes partaking in weight-bearing sports – sports that put pressure on the skeleton.

Hypotonic vs isotonic vs hyertonic

These might sound like buzzwords on the bottle, but they do have meaning…

Hypotonic. Intended as a thirst quencher, it is low in carbohydrates (fewer than 4g per 100ml) and contains a higher concentration of salt and sugar than the human body. It isn’t well suited for endurance sports, but is generally consumed after exercise to supplement carbohydrates and top up muscle glycogen stores.

Isotonic. Intended for quenching thirst and providing energy, it has adequate carbohydrates (4-8g per 100ml) and contains similar concentrations of salt and sugar as the human body. This makes it suitable for endurance sports – team sports as well as middle- to long-distance running.

Hypertonic. Intended for boosting energy, these drinks are higher in carbohydrates (greater than 8g per 100ml) and are taken up more slowly by the body than water. This makes them best for use 30-60 minutes before exertion and immediately afterwards. They contain a lower concentration of salt and sugar than the human body and quickly replace fluids that are lost by sweating. They’re best for athletes who need fluids without a carbohydrate boost, such as gymnasts.

Do you rely on sports drinks to get you through a game or training session? How do you find they benefit your performance and recovery? Comment below and let us know.