when are sports drinks appropriate for hydration?

It was 2008 and I was training for the Louisville Ironman. For those not familiar, an Ironman is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile bike ride and Louisville, KY also gets very hot and humid in the summer. This race was in August, at the peak of heat and humidity. Turns out it was 102 degrees the day of the race with a heat index higher than that.

The training days leading up to the race often included 10-12 hours of any combination of those activities above and staying hydrated was the most important part of being able to maintain my performance.

On one particular day, my training partner and I had what’s called a Brick, meaning back to back types of training. In this case, it was about 1 hour of running, then 2-3 hours of riding, on repeat for a few cycles during the day. The temps were in the 90s with the heat index above 100. And we both had each other’s back to remind us to hydrate and refuel throughout the day.  

In addition to simply reminding each other to drink consistently, we had a scale with us to weigh ourselves before we started each “event” and at the end, before transitioning to the next because whatever was lost was water weight, which certainly wasn’t at all the goal.  

Losing just 1% of your body weight in fluids (e.g., 2 lbs if you weigh 200 lbs like me), can start to negatively impact performance.

And when I say performance, it’s not just around physical performance but mental as well. Lose more weight and that detriment increases; things like focus, problem solving, accuracy and concentration will all be affected, making those Zoom calls, parenting and anything, really, even more of a challenge. 

The next question then: is water enough or do you need a sports drink to support your needs?

The answer starts with the same two words when it comes to nutrition: it depends. And this time is no different.

For me doing the Ironman, yes, a sports drink helped me make it through the race. For hours upon hours of zoom meetings, sports drinks aren’t quite necessary for performance, unless you’re not eating solid food and need a little pick me up.

 

When is there a need for sports drinks (when not training for the Ironman)?

Most sports drinks contain water, simple sugar and electrolytes.  Sure, there are some that are coconut water based or include some caffeine and others that have a sprinkling of some popular ingredients like turmeric or matcha. But a basic sports drink provides those necessary ingredients above. 

When I say “necessary” you may think – wait, I don’t want to add sugar to my diet – but the truth is, if you’re exercising consistently for over 60 minutes, simple sugar is the fuel that will help you go the extra mile (or get the extra rep). 

But keep in mind, for the average person just hitting the iron or getting a little workout in mid-day, sports drink probably aren’t required (unless you are working out on an empty stomach and it’s first thing in the morning 🡨 see there’s always an ‘it depends.’)

Let’s look at some basics around hydration itself because first, I want to make sure you’re hydrated to begin.

 

Before Exercise

It is recommended that people who are exercising consume 500 to 600 milliliters (17 to 20 fluid-ounces) of fluids 2 to 3 hours before exercise as well as 200 to 300 ml (7 to 10 fl oz) 10 to 20 minutes before exercise begins.  Now if you’re waking up, throwing on your Spar joggers and pounding the pavement within minutes, this isn’t possible.  But at least getting that cup or so of fluids in your body is a wise idea.

 

During 

A general recommendation during activity is 200 to 300 ml (7 to 10 fl oz) every 20ish minutes but athletes should pay attention to how much they are sweating and adjust accordingly.  For me, if I’m simply pushing a little iron in the gym, I’ll sip on a water bottle throughout the workout because I’m not a really heavy sweater.

Fluid intake during exercise may be more difficult for some sports, especially during competitions or in certain workout situations (such as a long-distance run) so you need to figure out what works for you.  And if you’re simply doing some yoga, rowing on a Hydrow or whatever other piece of equipment, you need to listen to your body but not override those thirst signals as they arise.

 

After

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends rehydrating with 450 to 675 ml (16 to 24 fl oz) of fluid for every pound loss during exercise.  Remember in the story above when we weighed ourselves between each activity; we were trying to minimize losses to make sure we were drinking enough and, if not, understanding then what we did need to consume to make up our losses.

If you’re an athlete, the goal should be to attempt to replace fluids lost during activity within two hours post exercise. 

 

The Time and Place for Sports Drinks

Sports drinks can provide much needed fluids, electrolytes and energy-producing carbohydrates. Whether an athlete does not have time to eat a pre workout snack or some additional energy was required during a long workout, sports drinks deliver easily digestible calories that can be quickly absorbed, while also contributing to fluid intake. The flavor that these drinks provide is also well accepted and may get people to drink more. 

There are many reasons to choose sports drinks over other beverages for fluid, electrolyte and carbohydrate replacement. Properly formulated sports drinks are designed to be digested and absorbed as efficiently as water.  Choose drinks that have a 6% carbohydrate solution. If the concentration of carbs is greater than 8%, the rate of fluid absorption will be slowed. At 6%, gastric emptying and intestinal absorption will not be affected.

How do you determine this value?  Look at the label to determine the serving size of the product and divide that number by the total number of carbohydrates in the entire product.

For example, if there are 355 mL in a product that contains 53 grams of carbohydrate, divide 355 by 53 and you get 6.6%.  

 

Tips for Staying Hydrated

Athletes can best monitor their hydration status when they pay close attention to how much they sweat. The more fluid lost during an activity, the more needs to be replaced during and following. 

One of the best ways to assess if you’re drinking enough is to monitor the color of your urine. If it is typically clear to light yellow, you are hydrating adequately. If it is trending towards dark yellow, you’re likely not getting enough fluids. 

In every pro and collegiate team locker room I’ve stepped foot in, we’ve had urine color charts in front of the urinals and toilets to remind the athletes to monitor hydration status.  Unfortunately most walk on to the field, in the ring or courts already mildly dehydrated. But whether you’re a pro athlete or weekend warrior, the rules are the same.  Hydrate sufficiently

 

Quick Summary: Do I need a sports drink?

  • Drink fluids throughout the day and with meals

  • Follow established guidelines for fluid replacement for before, during and after activity

  • Monitor sweat rate

  • Monitor urine color

  • Eat fruits and vegetables, they also have a high water content

  • Choose a sports drink if you’re exercising consistently for over 60 minutes, if it’s hot and humid out and you’re a heavy sweater or if water just isn’t cutting it taste wise so you’re not consuming enough throughout your activity



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