All About Sports Beverages

When we do physical activity, there are two main places that we derive stored energy from:
The most abundant source of energy in the body is our stored bodyfat.  We rely on bodyfat more heavily when we do lower intensity activity like long distance running or walking. 
The second main source of stored energy in the body is our “glycogen”, which is basically sugar that is stored in our muscles and liver that we can also use for energy.  We rely more  heavily on this form of energy during higher intensity exercise or stop and go sports-such as soccer, football, running bleachers, etc.  It takes roughly 90 minutes of high intensity exercise to almost deplete muscle glycogen.  When this happens, our ability to perform decreases-which translates into running slower, not being able to exert as much force, and generally being weaker.  For this reason, sports beverages contain a certain amount of sugar.  This sugar is meant to replace the sugar you are using for energy. 

Abby Johnson MS, RDN, LDN, CLT

Just like all other grocery decisions, there are now dozens of “sports beverages” to choose from.  When we think of sports beverages the first one that typically comes to mind is the “Gatorade”.  Although they were not the original creator of the idea of performance enhancing beverages, they became the largest and made the idea into a multi-billion dollar industry.  The original concept of a sports beverage was based on two things: replacing electrolytes to improve hydration and to replace glucose (sugar) to provide longer lasting energy during intense exercise.  For this reason the basic formula for a proper sports beverage is water + salt (and other electrolytes) + sugar.  With the emergence of newer formulations of sports beverages including; sugar free, “natural”, and low calorie, it can make what was once an easy decision, much more complex. 
Before we dig further into how to choose the best sports beverage for your needs, there are a few things you should know about how the body works.
  • Sweat is made up of a combination of water and electrolytes with the highest concentration of electrolytes coming from sodium and chloride (in the form of sodium chloride which is what your table salt is made of).  This is the reason why if you ever accidently tasted your sweat, it probably tasted salty.  Sweat also contains much smaller amounts of electrolytes including magnesium, potassium, and calcium. 
  • Electrolytes simply defined are minerals that carry an electrical charge.  This electrical change allows water to cross cell membranes therefor rehydrating those cells.  At a certain point, after you have lost a lot of fluid through sweat, rehydrating with water alone will not rehydrate you quickly enough to sustain high intensity activity. 

Now that we understand a little more about what is happening in the body during physical activity, let’s discuss some of the sports beverages that are available today and how to pick the right one!

With all the options available for electrolyte beverages, keep in mind the two original problems that sports beverages were created to solve:
  • Replace electrolytes– For this reason, if you are drinking a sports beverage to maintain performance level you want one that contains sodium.
  • Replenish energy stores– Going sugar free is only a good idea if you are using this as an alternative to juice in the interest of weight management.  If sports performance is a goal or if working at higher intensities for more than 60 minutes, you will want to try one that contains sugar.  Remember that sugar is not always a bad thing if it is serving a purpose. 

There are plenty of other products available that were not mentioned in this article.  But now that you know what to look for, hopefully you will have an easier time navigating what is out there.  My personal top three choices for sports beverages are Organic Honest Sport®, Gatorade Organic®, and Vitamin Water Active®.  All three meet electrolyte needs for most athletes, contain an appropriate amount of sugar and avoid artificial sweeteners and dyes.  At the end of the day, the most important factor in selecting a sports beverage is knowing what you need from the beverage and evaluating your personal preferences. 


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