With the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics just hours away, it is rather fitting that the British Medical Journal (BMJ) recently published an article questioning the need for sports drinks during exercise.

For years we have heard about the importance of staying hydrated, and particularly the importance of athletes maintaining hydration for better performance.  In the 1970s, however, marathon runners were discouraged from drinking fluids of any sort in fear that it would slow them down.  Back then there was little discussion about the role of hydration, let alone hydration with sports drinks.  So how did sports drinks gain so much popularity and what is the real truth behind hydrating with sports drinks instead of water?

Is this mocktail good for hydration?

The BMJ investigated this issue, and found that the main reason for this increase in popularity had to do with the companies behind the drinks. Sports drinks such as Gatorade, Powerade and Lucozade are all owned by multinationals like PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and GlaxoSmithKline, respectively.  The BMJ found that funding from these companies has been used for much of the research on the topic of hydration, as well as on the marketing of their products.

Before being bought out by a multinational, the first experimental batch of sports drinks cost £28 to produce. This has now developed into an industry with sales around £260m a year in the UK alone, and around £1bn in the US, with both figures growing yearly.  With a combination of science, funded by the sports drink industry, and creative marketing, sports drinks have become an “essential piece of sporting equipment” and are now commonly perceived by athletes as being as important a factor of their performance as their training.  Using famous elite athletes to “sell” their products has certainly also helped increase their sales.

Are sports drinks better in maintaining hydration than water?  Bottled water companies and the sports drinks industry both agree about the need to drink plenty of fluids, however, there is an ongoing dispute as to what that fluid should be.  The National Hydration Council, which represents the bottled water industry, advises people to drink water rather than sugary sports drinks which provide unnecessary calories.  Sports drinks companies on the other hand are promoting their products as a superior source of hydration with performance benefits.

Is this sideways glass of water any good?

Sports drinks are designed to provide the right amount of carbohydrate, fluid and electrolytes so that the athlete is adequately hydrated and fuelled for optimal performance.  When you sweat, you lose very small amounts of sodium and other electrolytes.  Under normal circumstances, the average person who exercises less than one hour does not need a sports drink to stay hydrated, since drinking water and consuming electrolytes from food can be enough. If you prefer to have a sports drink after light or moderate exercise, go ahead, just remember that you might not need it, and they do contain sugar which provides calories.

A 500ml bottle of a regular sports drink can contain between 4-8 teaspoons of sugar, around 60-120 calories. For elite athletes taking part in high intensity training over an extended period of time, and training in extreme environmental conditions such as humidity or high heat, sports drinks can play an important role in supporting hydration.  For these athletes, drinks with electrolytes help improve fluid absorption to replace fluids lost through sweating.

The bottom line is that while the public is being bombarded with messages that they should drink fluids during exercise, for the general population sports drinks are not needed.  However, the evidences shows that for competitive athletes, these sports drinks can provide them with the fluid and fuel they need for performance, as well as extra calories that are needed to maintain their high calorie requirements.

Written by BKR