The history of sports drinks goes back to the 1960’s when a renal physician created a drink called Gatorade, which contained water, sodium, sugar and monopotassium phosphate1. The creator of this drink claimed that it could prevent and cure dehydration, heat stroke, muscle cramps and improve performance. Since that time the sports drink market has exploded yet the research backing up the health claims is severely lacking.
This article will talk about why sports drinks were created, whether or not they work and if they offer an advantage over water.
What is in sports drinks?
There is nothing magical about sports drinks. They are essentially water, sugar, salt and food coloring. One 20 oz. bottle of Gatorade contains 140 calories, all from sugar. The formula has not changed much since the development of Gatorade in the 1960’s.
Water vs sports drinks- hydration and performance
The two claims of sports drinks producers that have endured over the years are 1) Sports drinks hydrate better than water and 2) Sports drinks enhance performance better than water2. The first claim is nearly impossible to verify. How does one measure dehydration? Urine color? This is not always accurate. Without the ability to effectively measure dehydration it is very difficult to compare the hydrating abilities of sports drinks compared to water.
Do sports drinks enhance performance compared to water? While it is true that we lose sodium during a workout, it is also true that we should be getting enough sodium through our normal diet to replace any sodium lost during exercise2. Interestingly, our body will re-absorb sodium at higher rates during exercise if our stores are lower than usual3. A study found that taking a salt supplement did not enhance exercise performance or exercise-heat tolerance3.
Consuming sugar during exercise may replace glycogen stores and enhance performance but this varies widely from person to person. If planning to perform long term endurance exercise it may be better to consume a high carbohydrate meal before the work out.
Is there ever a need for sports drinks?
The School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences claims that consuming a sports drink during endurance activities will enhance performance but did not cite any studies backing this claim up4. When we sweat we lose sodium. The amount lost varies greatly from person to person. While the need to drink a beverage containing sugar is more controversial there are times after prolonged and intense exercise that a person may have to replace some sodium lost- but usually they get enough through their normal diet.
Corruption in the industry
For the sake of keeping this article short I will only briefly cover the widespread corruption in research concerning the effectiveness and need of sports drinks. Over the past few decades there have been hundreds of studies assessing the effectiveness of sports drinks- nearly all funded by the sports drinks companies4. Amazingly, among the hundreds of studies, there are few to no studies which have found that sports drinks do not enhance performance. Many scientists that have conducted research on sports drinks have direct ties to Coca Cola, Gatorade (PepsiCo) and GSK, yet most of them did not declare or publish their conflict of interest1.
If you would like to read more about the issues plaguing studies assessing the effectiveness of sports drinks I recommend reading, “Forty years of sports performance research and little insight gained 5.”
- Ever since the development of Gatorade in the 1960’s, sports drinks have been marketed towards athletes
- Sports drinks contain water, sodium and sugar
- Although makers of sports drinks claim they enhance performance and rehydrate better than water the research backing these claims up is lacking
- There is wide spread corruption in the industry among scientists having financial ties to sports drink companies yet not declaring a conflict of interest in their sports drink studies
- Through our normal diet we should be getting enough sodium and carbohydrates to fuel our workouts without the need to replace them with a sports drink
- Cohen, D. (2012). The truth about sports drinks. BMJ: British Medical Journal (Online), 345.
- Schneider, M. B., & Benjamin, H. J. (2011). Sports drinks and energy drinks for children and adolescents: are they appropriate?. Pediatrics, 127(6), 1182-1189.
- Latzka, W. A., & Montain, S. J. (1999). Water and electrolyte requirements for exercise. Clinics in sports medicine, 18(3), 513-524.
- Shirreffs, S. M. (2009). Hydration in sport and exercise: water, sports drinks and other drinks. Nutrition bulletin, 34(4), 374-379.
- Heneghan, C., Perera, R., Nunan, D., Mahtani, K., & Gill, P. (2012). Forty years of sports performance research and little insight gained. BMJ: British Medical Journal (Online), 345.