Sports drinks – ineffective, expensive placebo or game changer?

The first question submitted to Honest Fitness was: ‘Sports drinks. Are they all rubbish?’. It’s a very valid question – do sports drinks work or are they just clever marketing for sugary drinks?

First off, the term sports drink can mean anything and nothing. In a worldwide industry that is estimated to be worth $26.9bn per year, and with annual growth of 8.5%, energy drinks like Red Bull, traditional brands like Lucozade and sports supplement companies like the Maxi brand vie for their own corner of the ever increasing market. Each drinks manufacturer makes their own claims about the improved concentration, reduced fatigue, increased energy, salt replenishment, recovery rates and any other sports performance indicator they might think of.

It isn’t simply a case of every drink doing the same thing. In the 1960s, sports drinks were sugar heavy and consumed by the gallon by people who felt they needed a boost during exercise. But since then, science has become more sophisticated and the range of drinks out there is staggering. Pre-exercise, during-exercise and post-exercise drinks all have different ingredients which claim to improve energy storage, or give the quickest energy burst whilst in the midst of a challenge, or even reduce the effects of DOMS (sore muscles after exercise) and replenish energy stocks quickly.
Within each of those sections you have drinks with have different concentrations of different ingredients depending upon desired results. Do you need energy? Or is it electrolyte concentration which is more important? How much protein is there and will it cause issues in the gut? The science is stifling for many – after all, your average man or woman who exercises regularly may not know the ins and outs of why, when, how, what and where. That’s not their job. They want to pay their money, drink their drink and improve their chances of achieving their desired outcome.

The problem is often that the research cited by the companies involved may be flawed. Because it is generally those companies who fund the research; and who can truly believe research paid for by a company looking for a certain result? Take the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, for example. Whilst they no doubt undertake groundbreaking research, the cynics in the science world may suggest that a sports science institute run by a company who profits from the perceived effects of sports drinks may not be completely valid. Especially when there are conflicting views elsewhere (and there always are!). The British Medical Journal, for example, evaluated 431 performance-enhancing claims for 104 sports products and found a distinct lack of high-quality evidence.

Generally, the standard sports drink is one consumed by recreational sportspeople during exercise. They work (or not) by providing an immediate supply of either energy (usually in sugar form) or electrolytes, as well as water – the things lost during exercise. So effectively, it is replenishing stocks. Whether they are needed depends on a great many factors which include duration of exercise, effort levels, rate of sweating, environmental factors (heat and humidity) and genetics amongst the many. General consensus is that if exercise lasts for under 90 minutes, only water is needed – performance will not be improved by consuming a sports drink. After that point, energy and electrolytes may be needed. In what form, by what company and at what cost is down to the individual. The Honest Fitness approach is to give them all a try during training until you find one which works for you. Training isn’t just about physical preparation – it’s about getting ready for performance in every way. Many people make their own sports drinks. There are recipes online everywhere and at a fraction of the price of the big brands, they might be worth a go, too.

How to make your own sports drink

For some, sports drinks are unnecessary and they do not have to buy them. For others, they’re absolutely vital; whether that’s because the ingredients provide everything they need to perform better or because it simply removes the worry of running out of steam, is debatable. Perhaps more importantly, the information provided to consumers needs to be clearer so these drinks are consumed at the right time by the right people with the right goals. After all, we have all seen that person in the gym who goes in, consumes a sports drink after having a work out, and then wonders why they are not losing weight.


Featured image credit: Vuelta a Antioquia by Flikr user Adapted and used under a Creative Commons

About kevin betts

Personal trainer, marathon runner and most interested in motivation and goal setting. I run for peace of mind, but also to create a bit of turmoil to get through.

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