Health:Are sports drinks better than water when exercising?

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You’re nearing the end of spin class at the gym and you’re feeling the burn. Do you need a sports drink or will water get you through that final climb?

Whether you would benefit from a sports drink depends on the events you are taking part in and your goals, says Louise Burke, chief of nutrition strategy at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).

And she would know. Her role is to run nutrition programs for elite athletes.

Sports drinks typically contain water and electrolytes (usually sodium and potassium and sometimes magnesium) for rehydration and carbohydrates (as sugars) for energy.

They were invented in the 1960s to replenish fluid and provide extra fuel for intense sporting activity of a long duration — as in, more than 90 minutes.

“If you’re in the gym pedalling to lose weight while you read a magazine, then you don’t need a sports drink. Just drink water,” Professor Burke says.

But don’t confuse sports drinks with energy drinks.

Sports drinks provide carbohydrates in an amount to help athletes exercising intensely, while energy drinks contain sugar, caffeine and other stimulants.

Using energy drinks to sustain you during exercise could end up making your energy levels worse.

Clare Collins, professor in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle, agrees with Professor Burke and says sports drinks are for serious athletes only.

“For ordinary people who play soccer on a Saturday, there’s no need for them because their fluid requirements can be met by water,” she says.

“Generally, you’re not sweating enough to lose excessive amounts of electrolytes.”

When do you need a sports drink?

What if you consider yourself a committed athlete and perhaps you’re taking part in a marathon or triathlon event?

Professor Burke says the carbohydrates in sports drinks can be helpful if you’re aiming for a personal best, or taking part in a competition you really must win.

“From the physiological point of view, there’s a benefit in having carbs for sustained intense exercise of over 60 minutes” she says, declaring that the AIS does receive sponsorship from a sports drink manufacturer.

She explains this is because when we start exercising, our muscles initially use their stores of carbohydrate for fuel, but these stores become depleted after about 90 minutes.

Our muscles then start to become more reliant on fat-burning for fuel and because this isn’t as efficient as burning carbohydrates, our pace is slowed.

“The intake of worthwhile amounts of carbohydrate from a source during exercise, such as a sports drink, will provide an alternative or additional source of fuel to allow carbohydrates to continue to be ‘burned’ at the higher levels needed to sustain the athlete’s optimal pace,” Professor Burke explains.

The carbs can also have a motivational effect even in shorter workouts.

“Experiments have shown that just swilling a sports drink around your mouth and then spitting it out can make athletes perform better,” Professor Burke says.

Don’t forget about sports drinks’ sugar content

If a sports drink can help a serious athlete, why shouldn’t we all use them?

The problem is the carbohydrates — usually sugars — in the drink. One litre of sports drink contains 60 grams of carbs, equating to 960 kilojoules — or about four tablespoons of sugar.

“We want people to be aware of the kilojoules they contain,” Professor Collins says.

“If you are exercising to lose weight, then drinking a sports drink could mean you need to spend another 30 minutes or more in the gym.

We should also be mindful of the effects of sports drinks on our teeth.

Both Professor Burke and Professor Collinswarn that, like all sugary, acidic beverages, sports drinks contribute to dental decay so consider that in your overall dental care regimen.

When deciding whether to choose water or a sports drink, here are some guidelines:

  • Use water when exercising to lose weight or when exercising for an hour or less.
  • Consider using a sports drink for fuel when doing intense sustained exercise for 90 minutes or more. You will need at least 30g of carbohydrate per hour.
  • If the outcome of a competition is important to you and you need to perform at your best, drinking small amounts every 10 to 15 minutes can make you feel like working harder.

This is general information only. For detailed personal advice, you should see a qualified medical practitioner who knows your medical history.

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