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Sports Drink Shenanigans

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Out of all the sports supplements available on the market, Sports Drinks are one of the key sellers. Whether you are walking on the treadmill in the gym or playing a 5-a-side, you are led to believe that you must have a sports drink with you at all times. The standard advice is that if you are exercising for longer than 30mins, then you need to drink them in order to hydrate and keep up energy levels.

Let’s take a look at the most common sport drinks you see in shops today.

Sports Energy Drinks

Your typical Lucozade Sport, Gatorade or Powerade  claims that the carbohydrate it contains will help fuel the muscle and sustain physical performance while also containing minerals to maintain fluid balance. A standard sports drink will contain 25-30g of carbohydrate and 100-200mg of sodium. The carbohydrate ingredients are simple sugars such as glucose and fructose while the sodium comes in a salt form. After that, there is not much else in terms of “functional” ingredients present in the drinks. There are of course several other ingredients that you don’t need which are not that healthy when you look at them a bit more closely. Sweeteners such as Aspartame and Acesulfame K are two common ones used which have been linked to health problems. In addition, there are preservatives and artificial colours which are not natural and are very unlikely to have any health benefits.

The Natural Alternative ?

Before I get into the explanation of whether carbohydrate or minerals are actually needed during exercise, it is very easy to make your own sports drinks from natural ingredients. Simple carbohydrates such as glucose and fructose are found in foods like fruit and honey. Sodium is found in good old salt. So a glass of orange juice with a pinch of salt is essentially providing you with the same “functional” ingredients without any of the added artificial ingredients.

Zero/Low Calorie Drinks

Over recent years, the sports drink companies have realised that the average person going for a 30min jog or circuit class does not need to be gulping back litres of sugary sports drinks. They now offer “zero” type drinks which contain no carbohydrates/sugars e.g. Powerade Zero and Lucozade Lite. Yet they still claim that they are needed to maintain hydration and fluid balance. They will contain trace amounts of sodium which is really the only mineral we lose in sweat that has any bearing on our hydration status. However, the amount added is usually in such small amounts that it has no real affect on your overall sodium balance. One of the main objectives of sports drink companies is palatability and taste. Too much salt is not palatable so they add small amounts and then dress it up with artificial sweeteners and flavours.

The Natural Alternative ?

This all comes down to context. If you are doing any type of exercise for 60mins or less and it’s not too hot or humid, then no sodium is needed. If on the other hand you are going for a long run or cycle for example, a few pinches of salt in your drinks is all you need. For the more serious athletes, there are electrolyte sachets and tablets which contain higher amounts of sodium and these are a far better alternative to simply add to plain water rather than drinking litres of an artificially flavoured/sweetened drink with minimal salts.

The Nuts and Bolts – Do we really need sports drinks to exercise and keep hydrated ??

The first thing to realise is where all the recommendations about what and how much to drink are coming from. Yes, the very people who are trying to sell them and make profit. Unfortunately, many of the studies from which these guidelines originate from are funded by the sports drinks companies themselves. Then the conditions and type of tests that are done are not applicable to the real world. For instance, one of the key studies done in the early nineties was done using cyclists on stationary bikes. In this lab setting, there is no wind so the subjects sweat more and hence drink more. There is no consideration taken for the environmental conditions either. Fluid and mineral loss when running in the middle of the summer in a hot climate is very different from the same run in Ireland in February ! Thus, why do people follow generic recommendations ?

The answer to these sorts of questions has been the focus of one of the world’s most respected scientists in this field, Prof Tim Noakes. His recent book “Water-Logged- the serious problem of over hydration in Endurance sports”. One of his key findings is that we do not need to drink to prevent thirst. He has shown that we are designed to self regulate our own thirst. In other words, to maintain hydration, you only need to drink when you are thirsty. He has also show that we can also self regulate our own sodium balance and do not need drinks loaded with minerals and salts. When exercising, the body releases certain hormones which send signals to the cells to retain sodium and stop urine production. The body is clever and we need to allow it to work. By overdrinking and intaking more sugars and salts than we actually need, we are disrupting the smooth functioning of our fine tuned engines !

One particular topic that I have a fair bit of experience with is the issue of “fuel” during exercise. As mentioned, sports drinks come loaded with sugars which are supposed to be used for fuel. However, for low to moderate intensity exercise, like easy jogs, swims, cycles etc, the most abundant and useful fuel for the muscle is fat. However, intaking too much sugar blocks the fat burning pathway. In addition, we have plenty of sugar stored in the muscle in the form of glycogen. This is stored after consuming carbohydrate foods such as potato, rice, breads etc. The average amount available for most is enough to fuel 2-3hrs of moderate to even higher type intensity exercise. In other words, drinks with sugars are not needed for most unless you are a serious athlete exercising for pro-longed periods at high intensity.

Summary

–          Sports drinks are just sugar + salt and water

–          Zero drinks are just water + some salt

–          Natural alternatives can be made using some fruit juice, honey and salt

–          Recommendations and guidelines come from sports drink companies that want to make profit

–          Independent research has shown that the body can self regulate its own hydration status and the best time to drink is when you are actually thirsty

–          Energy drinks containing sugar block the most important fuel we all are born with – Fat !

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