Sports Drinks

Sports Drinks – What you need to know

The sports drink industry has grown considerably over the last few years and many sports drink company’s primary target market has shifted. It is no longer just the endurance athlete, but ranges from the average gym goer, morning joggers, sports teams, and to those with a hangover. So how do you know which of these drinks actually does what is says it will do, and which drink is best for you? 

What is a Sports Drink?

A sports drink will contain carbohydrates/sugars to top up your fuel supply, and water and sodium (salt) to prevent dehydration. Sodium is the only electrolyte that has been shown to improve exercise performance and the rest (potassium, magnesium, B vitamins) are put in to sound impressive on the ads. However, for SOME of those that commonly suffer cramp, these extra electrolytes MAY be of benefit. However the best way of dealing with cramp is to have a varied diet fill of nutritious foods and remain well hydrated at all times.   

Can I just use water?

Why not water? Do you even need to pay for a sports drink or will good old tap water do the trick? Here are the situations in which sports drinks will be of benefit compared to water:

  • You are doing endurance exercise lasting for more than 90 minutes AND you are not getting adequate carbohydrates and salts through gels and solid foods.
  • You are playing a sport or doing high intensity intermittent exercise for more than 60 minutes AND you are not getting adequate carbohydrates and salts through gels and solid foods.
  • During training runs when you want to increase your tolerance to sports drinks.
  • In all other situations water will do the trick.
    How much do I need?

    Well, that depends….Your fluid and carbohydrate requirements depend on your tolerance, personal characteristics, training level, training goals, and environmental conditions. The carbs you get from fluid needs to be balanced with the carbs you get from your gels. A personalized nutrition plan is key here as; too little and you wont be training at your peak, or too much and you will have carried unnecessary weight with you.

    Does the carbohydrate concentration matter?

    Very much so. Optimal carbohydrate absorption will occur when the drink is between 4-8% carbohydrate and contains a range of different types of sugars (glucose, maltodextrin, fructose etc). Most commercial sports drinks achieve this, although they are generally very close to the 8% cut off. The carb concentration will also affect the taste of the drink. I tend to drink less if they are too sweet so I either dilute my drink a bit or, if I’m making it up from powder, I use less concentrate than recommended. To ensure that I meet my carbohydrate requirements I have gels and solids foods as well.

    I hear a lot about electrolytes…

    ‘Electrolytes’ seems to be the new buzz word in sports drink marketing, but what are they? They are an example of what we call ‘micronutrients’, they do not provide energy for our body like carbohydrates, but are essential to keep our body functioning properly. For example you can drink as much water as you like but if you don’t have enough sodium (salt, sodium, sodium chloride all refer to the same thing) in your drink you will just pee that water out again and remain dehydrated. Other electrolytes often added to sports drink include potassium and magnesium, and I am also starting to see micronutrients such as B vitamins being advertised. There is no evidence to suggest that the addition of these will improve exercise performance.

    What’s more, the thing about salt is that it doesn’t taste great in drinks, so most sports drink companies don’t add optimal amounts of it. All those ads on tv saying that their drink is perfectly blended for optimal rehydration are basically a pack of lies. For optimal hydration during and after exercise you will need to add salt to your sports drink, how much depends on your tolerance, personal characteristics, training level, training goals, what sort of sports drink you are using, and environmental conditions. Again, a personalized nutrition plan will be key to getting this right.

    So it’s fair to say that all the hype around electrolytes should be taken with a grain of salt…..(sorry).


    If you don’t like it, you won’t drink it. The best and most perfectly blended drink will be useless unless you actually like it. Experiment with different flavours of suitable brands. Take into account the fact that you may be training over a number of months and that you may get sick of the same flavours and brands, so it is a good idea to mix it up.

    Powder vs Ready made?

    There is a wide variety of ready made drinks that are quick and easy, and adequate for your needs. However, if you use sports drink regularly, they are more expensive and are terrible for the environment (a bottle of water takes two litres of oil and one litre of water to make). I also like the powdered drinks as you can manipulate the concentration easily meaning that you can build up your tolerance to the taste and sweetness as your training progresses.

    Think ahead

    If you are training for a specific event, check out what sports drink they provide at their aid stations. It is essential to have trialed that drink in training; the golden rule of sports nutrition is to never do something on race day that you haven’t tried already in training.