Sports Drink Myths Debunked By Maria Urso

Triathletes and other endurance athletes are always looking for the best way to stay hydrated and energized while training and racing.  There are many options for sport drinks that can help replace essential nutrients to keep you going strong on those long training days.  Below is an article that will help you distinguish between the different types of sport drinks and help you decide what might work best for you.  As with any nutritional supplement, trying them out during training sessions is very important so you know how you will tolerate the beverage, everyone is different.

Sports drinks have been getting a lot of press lately, and not the good kind. There has been great debate regarding whether they should be removed from public schools due to their sugar content. Recently, Texas Rangers center fielder, Josh Hamilton, had to sit out five games due to blurred vision and balance issues—diagnosed as a consequence of too much caffeine and energy drinks. Combine these issues with endless options and you’re likely to be confused regarding what sports drink is for good you.


It is the position of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) that “adequate fluid replacement helps maintain hydration and, therefore, promotes the health, safety, and optimal physical performance of individuals participating in regular physical activity”. A mere two percent loss of body weight via sweat can lead to a decline in performance. It’s hard to believe that 20 years ago there was one option: Gatorade.


Today, due to the allure of innovative products, the everyday athlete is inundated with choices. In addition, the claims made about the effects of each product on performance can bring out the skeptic in anyone who has tried multiple products resulting in more of an impact on their wallet than on their PR.

Lucky for you, scientists across the globe are evaluating these products on everything from GI issues to performance enhancement. For those who would rather spend their time training than scouring the literature, here is a handy overview of the different products marketed to endurance athletes:

1. Product: Electrolyte Sports Drink

What it is: A 4 to 8 percent solution of carbohydrate (4 to 8g of carbohydrate per 100ml/3.3 oz) and electrolytes.

What it claims: This carbohydrate concentration maximizes absorption and decreases transit time in the gut (subsequently decreasing bloating and GI distress). Electrolytes replace minerals lost in sweat.

Results show: If used repeatedly during endurance exercise (more than 60 minutes) electrolyte sports drinks aid in maintenance of blood sugar and provide fluids to support hydration. But, during exercise lasting less than 60 minutes, there is no evidence of physiological or performance differences between a carbohydrate-electrolyte drink and plain water. The electrolyte concentration is negligible compared to that in the blood.

Recommendation: Drink 600 to 1200 ml/hour (20 to 40oz). You may need to try a few products since the carbohydrate source is different across brands. Some individuals cannot tolerate fructose, while others cannot tolerate maltodextrin.

2. Product: “SuperStarch” Beverage

What it is: Cornstarch treated with a heat-moisture process that alters the metabolism of the starch in the body. Originally developed to prevent hypoglycemia in individuals with glycogen storage disease.

What it claims: Optimal carbohydrate source due to fast absorption (low osmolality), “time-released” glucose profile, and low insulin impact. This prevents the spike and crash phenomenon and increases use of fat for energy during exercise and recovery.

Results show: Serum insulin was eight times less as compared to a maltodextrin-based drink. Glucose levels were more stable during prolonged exercise (120 minutes). Plus, there was an increased fat breakdown during exercise and recovery.

Recommendation: Athletes are instructed to take 1 to 2 servings before prolonged exercise. This product may be more appropriate for trained athletes who are accustomed to completing a 2- to 4-hour endurance event with little nutritional support. Athletes should be vigilant about water intake during the event.   


3. Product: Caffeinated Sports Drinks

What it is: Caffeine is a drug, stimulant, not a nutrient. If the product is calorie free, the drink is a vehicle for caffeine.

What it claims: Increased energy from caffeine.

Results show: These drinks, unless they contain carbohydrates, don’t provide energy for the working muscles or help with hydration, since caffeine can increase urine output. Results have shown improved performance during high-intensity, short-duration (3 to 10 seconds) exercise and increased time to exhaustion and improved mood profile during endurance events. This is largely attributed to decreased perceived exertion.

Recommendation: Read labels. A caffeinated sports nutrition bar consumed with a caffeinated drink can leave you over-caffeinated resulting in jitters, GI distress and headaches. The recommended amount for performance improvement is 0.45 to 1.36 mg caffeine per pound of body weight. More does not usually mean better.

4. Product: Coconut Water

What it is: Clear liquid from young coconuts.

What it claims: Marketed as a natural sports drink due to its ‘high’ potassium and mineral content. It has fewer calories, less sodium and more potassium than sports drinks.

Results show: No differences in hydration or exercise performance during a 60-minute bout of treadmill exercise between trained men ingesting coconut water, conventional sports drinks and bottled water. Subjects experienced more stomach discomfort using coconut water.

Recommendation: If you can stomach the taste of coconut water, it is a suitable beverage for hydration. For exercise of longer duration (more than two hours) there is not adequate carbohydrate or sodium content. “Salty sweaters” and endurance athletes should consume a beverage that provides more sodium and carbohydrate (or supplement with salty, carbohydrate-rich foods such as pretzels).

5. Product: Combination Carbohydrate and Protein drinks

What it is: Carbohydrate-protein beverage containing approximately seven percent carbohydrate and .5 percent protein (7g Cho/100ml to 0.5g Pro/100ml)

What it claims: The average percent improvement in exercise performance during endurance exercise with the ingestion of protein is nine percent versus carbohydrate alone.

Results show: If you are ingesting carbohydrates at the higher end of the recommended range during exercise, adding protein has not been shown to act as an endurance elixir. Research has shown that ingestion of protein while exercising improves muscle recovery and reduces post-exercise muscle soreness.

Recommendation: Provided the carbohydrate content is within the recommended range, these drinks are suitable for endurance sports and may help an athlete get a head start on muscle recovery since the nutrients will be consumed well within the post-exercise 30-minute recovery window. Research consistently supports that there is a need for a combination of carbohydrates and protein after exercise. Carbohydrates help restore depleted muscle fuel stores after exercise, and protein provides the amino acids needed for muscle repair.

No matter the elixir you choose, it is always wise to practice your hydration plan throughout training. Different conditions and eating habits can impact what works and what doesn’t.

Additionally, always keep the following in mind:

  1. Drink by schedule, not by thirst. Athletes who rely on thirst usually become dehydrated.
  2. Flavored beverages (even calorie-free) enhance taste, subsequently promoting fluid replacement.
  3. Water alone lacks electrolytes. If you choose to forgo drinks that contain electrolytes, it is wise to consume electrolyte-rich foods (avocado, seafood, olives, table salt).

One response to “Sports Drink Myths Debunked By Maria Urso

  1. Awesome stuff, Thanks!!

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