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What should I look for in sports drinks?

Sports drinks are popular products for fueling and hydration during workouts. Learn about what your sports drink should contain and how they stack up to nutrient recommendations for performance.

From the Field

What should I look for in sports drinks?

HPRC's Answer

B.L.U.F.*

Sports drinks that contain electrolytes and carbohydrates can be essential to performance by replenishing what is lost during activity, mostly through sweat. For activities less than 60 minutes, water is the best drink to replace lost fluids. If your exercise session or mission exceeds 60 minutes, then sports drinks can be helpful. Follow HPRC’s guidelines for maintaining important nutrients such as fluid, carbohydrates, sodium, and potassium during activity to keep well hydrated and on top of your game.

Background

Sports drinks, which have been around since the 1960s, can be a quick and convenient way to replace nutrients and fluids lost during exercise. They’re used before, during, and after physical activity to minimize dehydration and restore lost nutrients such as electrolytes (sodium, potassium, and others), carbohydrates, and vitamins. However, this article focuses on sports beverages designed for use during exercise. Remember that energy drinks and recovery drinks/protein shakes are not the same as carbohydrate-and-electrolyte sports drinks.

Fueling Recommendations

  • For exercise less than 60 minutes, water is sufficient.
  • For exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes, research supports consuming electrolyte-and-carbohydrate drinks.

What Nutrients are Important?

  • Fluid maintains the hydration essential to performance optimization. Losing just 2% of body weight through dehydration can impact performance. For more information, see HPRC’s Hydration postcard. In general, you should drink 3–8 oz. of a sports drink every 15–20 min. (A gulp is about 1–2 oz.) Fluid needs depend on many different factors, so be sure to drink when you’re thirsty.
  • Carbohydrates are a quick source of energy, and they help maintain blood sugar. Both are vital for performance. However, sports drinks with more than 20 grams carbohydrates per 8 oz. may cause stomach upset.
  • Sodium is lost through sweat and should be replenished. Sodium helps stimulate thirst and retain fluid.
  • Potassium is also lost in sweat. It’s important for rehydrating and maintaining muscle contractions.
  • Vitamins:  Some sports drinks contain B vitamins, but there is no evidence that additional B vitamins during training will improve your exercise performance if you get enough from food.

What should my sports drink contain?

Per 8 oz., a sports drink should contain:

  • Carbs: 10–20 grams
  • Sodium: 50–200 mg
  • Potassium: 20–100 mg

Many commercial sports drink products (such as Gatorade, Powerade, Cytomax, and All Sport) are designed to meet these fueling guidelines. However, ingredients vary among different products, so you should always read the Nutrition Facts panel on the label for nutrient information.

Choose one that tastes good so you will actually drink it. Avoid trying new products during races and missions. Experiment only when you are training, so you can see if a new drink causes any stomach issues.

You can even make your own sports drink using this simple recipe:

  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¼ cup hot water
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 3½ cups cold water

Dissolve the sugar and salt in the hot water. Add the juice and the remaining water; drink or chill if preferred. Makes one quart.

Nutrition per 8 oz: 50 calories, 12g carbohydrates, 110 mg sodium, 40 mg potassium

Debrief

Well-balanced meals, snacks, and water/fluid combinations should always be the first choice to ensure hydration and general nutrition. However, in training and combat zones where intense physical activity may be combined with extreme environmental conditions, performance is likely to suffer if you aren’t well hydrated and you’re low in essential electrolytes and carbohydrates. Sports drinks can help maintain fluid and nutrient levels under these conditions. In addition, sports drinks can provide a convenient way to hydrate and consume nutrients when options are limited. However, keep in mind that if you aren’t exercising strenuously enough to deplete nutrients and water, these sports drinks can add excess calories and sugar to your diet. 

 

*Bottom Line Up Front