What to Look for in a Sports Drink

May 22, 2020

Many niche sports beverages are fighting for shelf space wherever fluids are sold. With so many options to choose from, you might wonder what to look for in a sports drink. Here’s a brief summary:

The Basics

  • Good taste. If you like the flavour, you’ll drink more and be less likely to become dehydrated.
  • Carbohydrate. Look for beverages with 50 to 70 calories of carbohydrate (12 to 18 g of carbohydrate per 8 240 ml). Too much carbohydrate slows absorption; too little leaves you lagging in energy. For long, hard, intense exercise, such as bike racing and marathon running, carbohydrate from a variety of sources (glucose, fructose, and sucrose—or dried fruit, energy bar, and gummy sweets) is better absorbed and offers an energy advantage.
  • Sodium. Important for maintaining fluid balance, sodium stimulates thirst and enhances fluid retention. If you experience significant sweat losses, the sodium found in sports drinks helps replace some (but not all) of the sodium lost in sweat. The drink should contain 110 to 170 milligrams of sodium per 8 ounces/230ml.

Add-Ins of Questionable Value

  • Vitamins. The vitamins in sports drinks are not incorporated quickly enough during exercise to be of any benefit.
  • Ginseng, guarana, and other herbs. There are no solid data to support any claimed benefits of these substances, and the amounts in beverages are probably too small to make a difference.
  • Caffeine. Because of individual responses, caffeine might enhance endurance or cause side effects such as anxiety, jitters, and irritability.
  • Protein. The addition of protein may or may not enhance performance (McDermott et al. 2017). The benefit noticed after exercise might be reduced muscle soreness. You can get this same benefit by eating protein before exercise (let’s say, a snack of cereal with milk).
  • Potassium, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals. In most cases, the amount of these minerals that is lost in sweat is too small to create problems. The recommended 20 to 50 milligrams of potassium per 8 ounces/230ml can be easily replenished with fruits, vegetables, and wholesome foods, as can the other minerals.

What You May Not Want

  • Carbonation. Bubbles can make you bloated and fill you up sooner.
  • Plastic bottles. They litter the environment if not recycled and are also potentially a source of hormone-disrupting BPA (as noted by a 7 inside a triangle on the bottom of the bottle). How about having just one BPA-free bottle (stainless steel, aluminum) that you refill daily?

Reproduced by permission from N. Clark, Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, 6th ed. (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2020).

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