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Are Sports Drinks Really Better Than Water?

posted Jun 30, 2011, 11:00 AM by Scott Stathis   [ updated Jul 1, 2011, 10:16 AM by Marci Titus Hall ]
Scott Stathis asked, " Are the likes of Gatorade and related sports drinks, tablets, etc. really better for the replenishing the fluids, carbohydrates and electrolytes then plain old water?"



Great question and especially important now since here in New England we are experiencing hot and humid weather; a tough combination in the quest to prevent dehydration.  Yes sports drinks are better at replenishing carbohydrates, electrolytes and by extension fluids, while you are exercising.  The entire premise of sports drinks is the fact that at a cellular level water follows solutes.  This means that the solutes (the combination of salt, electrolytes and sugars or carbohydrates) will cross the cellular membrane first and then the fluid (or water) will follow.  It might sound a little complicated and scientific but the simple fact is that the right combination of solutes ensures that fluid will absorb and hydrate you faster than plain water.  The caveat is that too many solutes can slow absorption of fluids, just like too little solutes or plain water.  Have you ever experienced water shaking around in your stomach?   This can happen when you drink fluids too fast or when you are eating a meal and drinking fluids.  The fluid sits in your stomach and doesn’t absorb quickly – which is fine when you are not exercising.  But when you are exercising you want that fluid to absorb and hydrate you as quickly as possible to replenish fluids lost from sweating.


There are three additional benefits to the solutes in sports drinks:
1.  The salt in sports drinks increases your thirst drive so that you want to drink more.  This helps ensure you keep drinking to stay hydrated. 
2.  The carbohydrate in sports drinks keeps your blood sugar steady so that you can continue to exercise without a big drop in blood sugar that would cause fatigue.  Since blood is shunted from your gut and routed to your working muscles while exercising, you want to consume carbs in their simplest form (hence the sugar in sports drinks) to ensure absorption.  The constant source of drinking carbohydrates will actually help you to burn fat and other stored carbohydrates while you exercise since, metabolically speaking, fat burns in a carbohydrate flame.  Low blood sugar actually prevents you from burning your own storage fuels and causes you to burn protein – hello fatigue, bye-bye muscle.

3.  The solutes in sports drinks help to prevent hyponatremia, a condition of extremely low blood solutes.  Sweating during exercise not only reduces blood volume but blood solutes, both of which need to be replaced.  Hyponatremia is a dangerous condition that can happen either during extreme dehydration with low blood volume and low blood solutes, or with hydration when large amounts of blood solutes have been lost due to sweating and are not replaced with added electrolytes or eating.  Though rare among cyclists it does happen commonly to endurance runners who are unaccustomed to eating or drinking sports drinks while running. 



Sports drinks are fabulous, the endurance athletes best friend, and there are enough of them out there that you can find your perfect solution or you can even make your own.  When I was a struggling graduate student I often did long training rides drinking a dilution of a powdered iced tea mixture – I sometimes still do.  But keep in mind that sports drinks are for consumption during sports.   Drinking plain water is ideal for hydrating any time other than when you are exercising.  My rule of thumb is that as long as you are adequately hydrated and fed before hand, any ride lasting under an hour can be done with plain water.   If you are going to exercise for over an hour, or have any question as to where the trail might take you, grab a sports drink!
Coach Titus