Do you Need a Sports Drink

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We all know that we need to stay hydrated in order to perform well but do you need to incorporate popular sports drinks into your sports nutrition plans, or are they simply a waste of time and money?

What is a sports drink?

It is important to understand what a sports drink is, as there are many different drinks available on the market which claim to enhance performance. A sports drink is formulated to contain between 4 and 8% carbohydrate and between 500 – 700mg/L of sodium.

The carbohydrate is included as it helps to replace the carbohydrate used during activity. If the body runs out of carbohydrate while exercising it will fatigue. This has a huge impact on performance. The carbohydrate also provides a source of fuel to the brain. If the levels of carbohydrate drop too low in the body the brain can be deprived of fuel. As the brain cannot rely on a back up supply of fuel it will also fatigue if not enough carbohydrate is available. If you compete in a sport that requires mental concentration or that includes a skill component (such as archery, fencing, golf) a lack of carbohydrate will also impair your performance. A lack of fuel for the brain can lead to a decreased reaction time, decreased levels of concentration, decreased focus and impaired decision making. All of these will decrease your performance!

Sports drinks also contain sodium for a number of reasons. One of these is that sodium is lost in sweat so needs to be replaced. Sodium also stimulates the thirst mechanism and drives you drink more (therefore hopefully staying more hydrated) and it helps the body’s cells to retain water. This allows you to stay hydrated longer but can also result in less toilet breaks (as your body holds onto more fluid). Sodium also plays an important role in the digestive system in that it helps the small intestine absorb glucose. If the body can absorb glucose more efficiently, it may be less likely to run out of carbohydrates.

A drink that is not 4 – 8% carbohydrate and within the specified range of sodium are not sports drinks. Be careful of drinks that claim to be sports waters as these may not contain enough carbohydrate and/or sodium. It also pays to be careful of ‘energy drinks’ as these are formulated to have stimulants and may not have the recommended amounts of carbohydrate and sodium. If you are in doubt check the nutrition label.

The Consequences of Dehydration

Obviously a sports drink also contains water. Water is needed to keep the body hydrated. As over 60% of the body is made up of water this is very important. Dehydration can lead to a lack of mental performance, an inability to regulate your body temperature correctly, coma and even death. By the time you start to feel thirsty you could already be dehydrated so it is important to have a hydration plan. For some athletes a sports drink is a convenient way to stay hydrated, and consume carbohydrates at the same time.

When you Should be using a Sports Drink

For events under one hour in duration a sports drink is not normally necessary, but for events over an hour they may help performance. An exception to this is tournament based events where it may be harder for an athlete to recover from the previous event or when they may not have enough time to eat a snack or meal between events. In this case the sports drink can be helpful as it provides carbohydrates as well as fluid and sodium.

It can be tempting to water down your sports drink but try to avoid doing this as you will change the carbohydrate ratio and this may affect the effectiveness of your sports drink.

Gastrointestinal Distress or Upsets

It is possible that using a sports drink may lead to gastrointestinal distress or upsets. It is important to try different sports drinks in practice first to make sure that it sits well in your stomach. Try the drink when training at different intensities and if one does not seem to work well, try another. The 4 – 8% carbohydrate range is also used in sports drinks as this range of carbohydrate should maximise carbohydrate uptake and limit gastrointestinal issues.

Sports drinks can certainly help athletes taking part in events longer than an hour in duration, or at tournaments but you need to choose wisely. Look for a sports drink with 4 – 8% carbohydrate and 500 – 700mg/L sodium but also make sure that you like the taste of your chosen sports drink – there is no point using what everyone else does if you do not like the flavour of it, or it does not sit well in your stomach. Always remember to practice using your sports drink first and stick to your hydration plan for events so you can limit the effects of dehydration and a lack of carbohydrate (fuel).

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