How Sports Drinks Can Help You….and How They Can’t

So Just How Useful Are Sports Drinks?

From time to time I get asked a question about the usefulness of one sports drink or another.

Are they any good?

Are there any in particular you’d recommend?  Ones to avoid?

Different sports drinks

The short answer is that sports drinks sort of help, but not because of anything that’s particularly unique to sports drinks themselves.

There are a few that are better than others, but it’s important not to get carried away.

Why Sports Drinks Are Supposed To Help Performance

When your body exercises it depletes sugars, salts, and other ionic compounds (electrolytes) from its body. Those molecules are important for different types of cellular activity, so giving your body more of them when you exercise helps you perform better.

That’s the story, and it’s more or less true. Athletes that receive electrolytes during races, matches, etc usually perform a little bit better than those that don’t. (Operating word: “little”)

This truth extends to sports drinks, because they have some sugar and salt added to them.


To understand what sports drinks do and don’t do for your body, let’s take a look at a popular sports drink, Powerade.

Powerade Label

The picture’s a little blurry, but let’s take a look at the ingredient list.

  • Water – self-explanatory.
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup – sugar
  • Maltodextrin – sugar
  • citric acid – preservative
  • acacia – preservative that’s added to improve mouth feel
  • potassium citrate – salt/diuretic
  • salt – salt…duh!
  • potassium phosphate: type of salt that’s also used in other sports drinks, is an emulsifier
  • Natural flavors: an exceedingly vague term which can mean any number of things
  • Glycerol – fat metabolite that’s used as a sweetener/preservative
  • Vegetable oil – self-explanatory
  • Yellow 5 – food coloring which can sometimes cause allergic reactions

If there’s a take home point from the above list it’s that there’s nothing particularly special about any of these ingredients. It’s just water, sugar, salt, preservatives, and a coloring agent. Almost all of the above ingredients are found in abundance in other low quality processed foods that typically draw the ire of the public health crowd.

Are There Alternatives to Sports Drinks?

You bet!

There are any number of homemade rememdies which would have the same (or better) effects than a regular ol’ sports drink. You could just add sugar and salt to water. Salt to apple juice.  Natural food people like to use coconut water. Use your imagination!

A nice example of the replacibility of sports drinks is from a study that compared the effect of sports drinks on athletic performance to chocolate milk. Chocolate milk won.

Here’s the abstract from the paper (bold part added by me):

Milk consumption acutely increases muscle protein synthesis, leading to an improved net muscle protein balance. Furthermore, when postexercise milk consumption is combined with resistance training (12 weeks minimum), greater increases in muscle hypertrophy and lean mass have been observed. Although research with milk is limited, there is some evidence to suggest that milk may be an effective post-exercise beverage for endurance activities. Low-fat milk has been shown to be as effective, if not more effective, than commercially available sports drinks as a rehydration beverage. Milk represents a more nutrient dense beverage choice for individuals who partake in strength and endurance activities, compared to traditional sports drinks.

Is One Sports Drink Better Than the Other?

For the most part no. They’re all the same. If you take the time to scrutinize the labels of each you’ll find that they contain almost the exact same ingredients with a few different modifications.

There’s nothing especially harmful in most sports drinks, with the possible exception of food colorings, which can have a few nasty side effects for some people.

If there are a few recommendations to make, it’s better to have a sports drink that’s isotonic. That means it has salt/sugar in the same proportions found in your body. Neither gatorade nor powderade fit the bill. I think Heed does, but I ‘m not quite sure.

As for quality of ingredients goes, I think the Ultima Sports drinks are pretty good. No artificial sweeteners or food colorings, although it’s not that big of a deal.

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