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Do We Really Need Sports Drinks?

For those who aren't professional runners, sports drinks and energy bars don't provide nutritional value.

Americans spent $5.5 billion on sports drinks, mostly Gatorade and Powerade last year. Even 12 percent of elementary school kids drink sports drinks. And that doesn’t even count expenditures on other sports nutrition products, like an estimated $583 million spent on nutrition bars in 2013, or the more than 25 million packets of GU energy gel produced each year.

Endurance athletes have unique nutritional needs, which means at least some of the sports nutrition products on the market serve a crucial purpose. But how many of us guzzle Gatorade while training for a marathon, and how many of us drink it while sitting on the couch?

In cycling terminology, “bonking” means running out of your body’s stored glycogen. Your body  stores about 2,000 calories of energy as glycogen, which it can easily convert to glucose and use as quick fuel. Running burns about 100 calories per mile, so it’s not hard to see why the estimated  four in 10 marathon runners who bonk tend to do so around mile 20.

Once your glycogen runs out, your body can use fat as energy instead, but fat is less efficient than carbs to burn, and  requires more oxygen to metabolize. Understandably, for an athlete, that means slowing down. What’s more,  your brain requires glycogen for fuel, so a bonk might mean more than just slowed physical performance, it can also mean becoming confused or disoriented.

To avoid a bonk, endurance athletes need to eat. And not just anything. They need to eat carbs. Refined carbs and even plain sugar— the very foods dietitians usually tell us to avoid — make perfect fuel to keep an athlete going.

Fluids and electrolytes are also important when exerting yourself for an extended period of time. Slower marathon runners and triathletes who drink only water without replacing electrolytes are at risk of hyponatremia, abnormally low blood sodium. This can occur after drinking eight to 10 liters of water, and it can be fatal.

2011 study reported that cyclists exerting themselves to 85 percent of maximum capacity could absorb only half a liter of water per hour, and the remaining amount they drank stayed in their stomachs. Drinking a sugary drink like Gatorade did not improve fluid absorption, and drinking anything more sugary than that compromised rehydration. The study recommended always drinking water and replacing lost sodium while exercising. When exercise lasts more than one hour, then consume potassium and, ideally, 60 to 70 grams of carbohydrates per hour.

During strenuous exercise,  blood is diverted from your gut to your skeletal muscle, heart, lungs, and brain. Often, those engaging in strenuous, long-lasting exercise complain of gastrointestinal problems like nausea, cramps, or vomiting. Dehydration can increase the prevalence of these symptoms. Sometimes, for an athlete who needs to eat, it’s just hard to get the food down and keep it down.

That’s where specially formulated sports drinks and other products come in. Take GU energy gels. The company’s founder, Bill Vaughan, created several flavors of PowerBars, yet his daughter, an endurance runner, had trouble digesting them during long races. That prompted her dad to create GU, tiny packets of gel containing amino acids, carbohydrates, electrolytes, and sometimes caffeine, as an easier-to-digest option for long races.

That said, sometimes sports products contain absolutely disgusting ingredients, like the  brominated vegetable oil a 15-year-old girl shamed Gatorade and Powerade from removing from their products in the past year. And before the era of sports products, athletes often simply drank water and took salt tablets to replace what they lost through sweat. Sugary foods like fresh fruit are rich in the carbs needed to fuel exercise. (Remember eating orange slices at half time during soccer games as a kid?)

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