I have had the debate with a few friends and gym parents as to whether or not sports drinks are healthy. My position is that they are. And that they aren’t. To start with the drink and the purpose of the drink have to be identified. If you are drinking to rehydrate, to energize or just choosing a yummy beverage, you will have different results.
Many sports drinks are designed to replenish fluids after exercise. Exercise, especially endurance training can be detrimental if fluids and electrolytes are not replaced. Losing as little as 2% of your body weight by sweating can impair your performance, at 7% you can start hallucinating and at 10% you will experience circulatory collapse and heat stroke. Lets put that in perspective; a 200 pound guy would have to lose 20 pounds of weight as sweat to reach such a dramatic effect. It sounds like a lot but it happens with endurance runners. Watch any IronMan competition.
Some drinks are designed to provide energy during exercise. The body needs carbohydrates (stored as glucose in muscle and the liver) to use as fuel. During a workout the muscles use and call up more glucose and deplete the stored amount at a rate of (up to) 3-4 grams per minute. Since it is difficult to eat during an event, carbs are available through a formulated “sports” drink.
There are 3 types of Sports drinks: Isotonic (contain fluid, electrolyte for rehydration and 6-8% carbs) a good choice for middle and long distance runners, Hypotonic (same as Isotonic but with slightly more carb content) this is a good choice for a gymnast during a workout, and Hypertonic (the same but with high levels of carbohydrates) for Ultra-distance runners and should be taken with Isotonics for fluid replacement.
Sugar in sports drinks actually serves a purpose. If the drink is used as it’s supposed to be, the sugar actually serves as an energy source. Sugars cause a quick energy and a later crash, but slower acting sugars can have a more sustained energy with no, or little, crash. High fructose corn syrup, which has a bad reputation. HFCS is a combination of fructose, or plant sugar and regular sugars. It’s bad rep comes from Americans consuming excessive amounts, which is like anything in massive amounts, bad. But controlled and immediately used consumption is sometimes warranted as in during a workout or training for endurance.
Lately, high-caffeine sports/energy drinks have become popular. Caffeine in these drinks increases the metabolization or passing of water and thus ultimately causes fluid loss. To add to that, many of these drinks are carbonated which leads to a bloated feeling and definitely decreased performance. But due to a very successful marketing campaign drinks like these sponsor sports events and the low information average person starts to associate them with sports. But they are the opposite of a sports drink. So, is drinking a sports/energy drink as a regular beverage advisable. No.
What about pop? UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research found that 41% of children (age 2-11), 62% of adolescents (12-17) and 24% of adults drink at least 1 sweetened carbonated beverage each day. Their study showed that there was a 27% increase in likelihood of obesity in adults that consume this average intake. The study did not specify conclusive numbers for adolescents and children but you don’t have to stretch your imagination far to figure out the results.
What’s wrong with plain old water? For any athlete drinking water can give a bloated feeling. Of course it contains no electrolytes or carbohydrates either, but for us, I still suggest it as a gymnastics hydration choice. A few sips every 15 minutes or so, keeps a fluid balance and our training sessions in the gym are not anywhere near an endurance event. In the paragraph above I mentioned that a hypotonic drink is a good choice for a gymnast, but water is fine, cheaper too. But if you would like to make a good hypotonic drink to bring to the gym, I found this recipe online: use 100ml of blended orange or orange concentrate, add 1 liter if water and a pinch of salt. Mix it up, chill it and use during training for energy, fluid balance, and no unnecessary ingredients.
- Fitzgerald, Matt RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.
- REHRER, N.J. (1994) The Maintenance of Fluid Balance during Exercise. International Journal of Sports Medicine
- HAMILTON, A. (2005) Sports Drinks or water: What is the best choice for sports performers. Peak Performance
- UNKNOWN (1993) The Effect of Different Forms of Fluid Provision on Exercise Performance. International Journal of Sports Medicine
- UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research