What to Look for in Your Sports Beverage

Numerous 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 flavor, you'll drink more and be less likely to become dehydrated.
  • Carbohydrate. Look for beverages with about 50 to 70 calories of carbohydrate (13 to 18 g of carbohydrate per 8 oz, or 240 ml). Too much carbohydrate slows absorption; too little leaves you lagging in energy. For long, hard, intense exercise, such as bike racing or marathon running, carbohydrate from a variety of sources (glucose, fructose, and sucrose-or dried fruit, bagels, and gummy bears) might be better absorbed and offer an energy advantage.
  • Sodium. Important for maintaining fluid balance, sodium stimulates thirst and enhances fluid retention. If you have significant sweat losses, the sodium found in sports drinks helps replace some of the sodium lost in sweat.

Add-Ins With 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 only minimal data to support any claimed benefits and probably too little of the substances in the water to make any difference.
  • Caffeine. Because of individual responses, caffeine might enhance endurance or cause side effects of anxiety, jitters, and irritability.
  • Protein. The addition of protein may alter the taste (less desirable) and slow gastric emptying. More research is needed to determine if protein in a sports drink (more so than just the additional calories when protein is added to a carbohydrate drink) offers a performance benefit during exercise (Saunders, Kane, and Todd 2004). The benefit noticed after exercise is reduced muscle soreness. You can get this same benefit by eating protein before exercise (let's say, by having a preexercise snack of cereal with skim milk) if you prefer to not consume protein during exercise.
  • Potassium, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals. In most cases, too little of these minerals is lost in sweat to create problems. The minerals can be easily replenished with fruits, vegetables, and wholesome foods.

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. How about having just one bottle that you refill daily?

If you become more than 7 percent dehydrated (either by sweat losses, diarrhea, or vomiting), you will likely end up requiring intravenous fluid replacement under a doctor's care. In most cases, there is no advantage to taking fluids by IV, unless for medical necessity. Your best bet is to stay out of the medical tent in the first place by knowing your sweat rate and drinking accordingly.

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