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The Science of Sports Drinks

I grew up in the old days where you were lucky if you could even find a sports drink in the local convenience store.  The only choice you had to make was which flavor you wanted, and even at that you could only choose from a few options.  Today, it’s a much different story.  There are now dozens of flavors and variations that include low calorie, “recovery” formulas and those containing added vitamins or other supposed performance enhancing elements.

With all the options available it can be difficult to know what to choose and whether or not all these advances are actually beneficial or more just a product of savvy marketing.

Here’s what you need to know about sports drinks:


The story of sports drinks begins in the 1960’s at the University of Florida.  It was here that researchers identified that the school’s football team, often forced to play in conditions of extreme heat and humidity, seemed to significantly improve their performance after consuming a mixture of water, carbohydrate (sugar) and electrolytes (salt).

Word soon got out and colleges across the country began promoting the use of these beverages to their players to offset the effects of dehydration.  Sports drinks eventually made their way into the professional ranks where it has become a tradition to dump a cooler of Gatorade on a winning coach’s head.  Today, the drinks are so ubiquitous it’s difficult to find a single field, pitch or arena at any level, where sports drinks aren’t found in at least some capacity.

The Science

Not only has the sports drink landscape evolved tremendously over the years, so too has the science of hydration.  The original recipe was created to combat three things: 1) prevent dehydration (water), 2) provide energy and spare the body’s limited stores of carbohydrates and 3) replenish the salt lost via sweat (electrolytes).  More recent formulations also claim to aid in muscle recovery (with the addition of protein) or improve athletic performance by other mechanisms.

Despite what you hear from beverage producers, the science on sports drinks is actually incredibly mixed.  As reported in a 2012 systematic review in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal)¹, most studies demonstrating benefits of sports drinks were either poorly designed or financially supported by corporate interests indicating a high risk of bias of the results.

It is likely that the performance benefit from using sports drinks above that of water is modest at best and only apparent in a specific subset of people, namely high-performance endurance athletes doing exercise in the extreme heat and/or for an extended period of time (> 2hrs).  And there is no evidence that protein or vitamins in sports drinks do anything to improve exercise performance over what could be obtained through one’s diet.

Sports Drinks & You

Sports drinks may be beneficial for athletes engaging in activities in the heat when food consumption isn’t practical and they are truly taxing their body’s stores of carbohydrates (ie. exercising > 2hrs).  If that’s you, then go for it and choose the standard formula sports drink.  If it’s not, it’s probably better to skip it and stick with water. The same advice goes for your child during their athletic endeavors.  The extra calories just aren’t worth it.



Heneghan C, Howick J, O’Neill B, et al. The evidence underpinning sports performance products: a systematic assessment. BMJ Open 2012;2:e001702. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2012-001702


*originally published on http://www.dietitianabroad.com on September 4, 2015

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