Do You Need a Sports Drink?

Recently I gave a talk to the Seattle Women’s Hockey Club about nutrition for tournament weekends. In preparation for the talk I visited the local REI store to look at various sports products since I am commonly asked what I think about drinks, bars, gels, blocks or nuggets, etc. I must say the variety of products is overwhelming at first. Upon closer inspection however, I realized many of the products are very similar. There are of course “proprietary blends” of both carbohydrate and protein components and quite a bit of hype surrounding maltodextrin, whey protein and various amino acids. In general however, the differences among products don’t seem all that significant (despite marketing propaganda to the contrary!).

So here are a few basic ideas related to sports products.

First, if you are a recreational athlete not in competition or rigorous training, sports products may be helpful but not necessary. If you are sitting at your computer, walking leisurely during a lunch break, or casually riding your cruiser bike to do errands you don’t need a fancy sports drink. If you don’t like plain water the reduced or no-calorie “sports drinks” are fine for these purposes.

If you are doing something high-intensity like fast paced running, sprinting, or cycling for more than an hour then sports drinks can really help. Or if you are playing hockey, soccer or another sprinting sport, a sports drink may help you even if it is less than an hour – especially if you are playing multiple games in a day or consecutive days.

If in these high intensity situations you choose the low- or no-cal beverage you are missing the point. You want carbs during high intensity and/or longer duration activities.

Along these lines, the various electrolyte replacement drinks that do not contain any calories or carbohydrates are not the best choice either. If you sweat a lot (either because it’s hot and humid or you are wearing several added pounds of hockey gear) the electrolytes may be really helpful to replace fluid but you will not “get energy” from these drinks/powders/pills.

Finally, gels or blocks/nuggets do provide carbs for energy during a high intensity sport but you generally need to get enough fluid with them (usually 8 oz. per serving) to prevent gastrointestinal problems. This is fine for longer endurance activities but not practical for many intense sprinting sports when it is difficult to drink enough water. The same for the various bars – they can be great for a quick pre-workout/game snack if you know you can digest them, or afterwards to begin replenishing glycogen within the “magic 15-30 minute window” but not good during an intense bout of activity.

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One Response to “Do You Need a Sports Drink?”

  1. Joy Nelson Lundeen Says:

    Hello, dear friend. I am sorry to hear about Abby’s departure. I will always remember her lying in the sun at your house with snow outside. Hope all is well, and thank you for the sports drink information. I will share it with my clients. JOY

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