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If you’re a serious athlete, or even just a hardened gym goer, chances are you’ve had a sports drink or two in your time. But are they necessary and do they even boost performance?

Watching the marathon on TV, standing in line waiting for a treadmill at the gym, or hit your park for a steady jog on a Sunday morning and you’ll notice one thing – sports drinks are everywhere.

There was a time when sports drinks were the latest must-have in the world of elite fitness.

You would see high level athletes sipping them during half time intervals or at the start of a race, and sports scientists were eager to share the benefits of sports drinks to the world.

Now though, everyone has them. Kids playing little league games and five a side soccer, they line the shelves of grocery stores, adorn pages in fitness magazines and you’ll even see people who’ve clearly never picked up a dumbbell or run a hundred yards in their life drinking them over lunch or on their way to work.

So What are Sports Drinks and What are the Benefits?

The term is a fairly wide one and encompasses a huge variety of products. The basic idea behind a sports drink though, is that it contains a liquid mixture of carbohydrates and electrolytes along with vitamins and minerals.

Carbohydrates are your body’s go to source of energy, hence the reasoning for their inclusion. Terms such as “carb-loading” are thrown around in athletic circles and we’re always advised that endurance athletes need a diet plentiful in foods like rice, pasta, potatoes, fruit and bread – high carb foods basically.

So the idea of having your carbs in liquid form is a pretty sound one which has many advantages:

  • You don’t have to eat your carbs. Ever try shoveling down a mountain of spaghetti, a couple of bagels and a whole bunch of grapes two hours before a run in an attempt to fuel yourself up?
  • If you have, you’ll know that it’s certainly not pretty, and entirely uncomfortable. A sports drink allows you to take in 30 to 40 grams of carbs in less than half a minute with minimal bloating.
  • As the carbs are in liquid form they’re already partially digested, making it much easier and quicker for your body to absorb them, meaning a more rapid energy boost and faster recovery post training or race.
The added electrolytes in sports drinks can also be extremely useful.

Electrolytes are contained in your blood. They’re actually substances that conduct electricity and are essential to our health, wellbeing and general everyday function. Sodium and potassium are the two you’re most likely familiar with but there are a number of others too and between them they help to maintain a stable internal environment, regulate organ function and control chemical reactions within the body.

When you train however, you lose electrolytes through sweating. While your body will naturally replace the lost electrolytes over time, even just a short period with low electrolyte levels can leave you feeling light headed, dizzy, reduce performance and cause dehydration. Clearly this has a huge negative impact on recovery.

So sports drinks are definitely a good thing – yes?

Well, not necessarily. They certainly do have their benefits, but it’s not all sunshine and roses as you’re about to find out.

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