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Sports Drinks: Which is Right for You?

Posted Jul 19 2013 4:50pm
Sports Drinks...They're a necessity for runners, especially endurance runners and
especially this time of the year. Sports drinks have gotten somewhat of a bad rap lately because of the carb/sodium content. Ironically that's what makes a sports drink a sports drink. I think the negative view is largely due to the whole paleo diet hoopla. Sports drinks are not designed to be drunk as a regular beverage. Kids sitting on the bench at a soccer game don't need to be chugging Gatorade. Even the kids in the game playing for less than an hour, probably don't need Gatorade. Same goes for runners. If you're running less than an hour, water will do just fine. It's when you'll be running 60-mins or longer that you need a sports drink.

Most sports drinks contain small amounts of sodium. Sounds counter intuitive to have salt in a hydration drink, but sodium is an electrolyte that actually helps the body absorb water and carry it throughout the body. If you sweat long enough you can deplete your sodium stores. Even if you're drinking lots of water, you can be dehydrated. Ever get that sloshy feeling in your stomach after drinking water on a run? That could mean that your sodium levels are low and even though you have been drinking water, your body has no means to get it out of the stomach to hydrate the rest of you. 

Like sodium, potassium levels can be depleted through sweat after an hour of running too. Calcium is an electrolyte that helps muscles contract and potassium is an electrolyte that helps the muscle relax. Muscles cramps can sometimes occur later in a long run when potassium levels become depleted. Sports drinks contain potassium.

So, sports drinks do serve an important purpose. Next obstacle to clear is navigating your way through all the sports drink varieties to find the one that meets your needs. Ever go to the sports drink isle of the grocery store or nutrition store? It can be overwhelming. Today there are many more brands than Gatorade and even Gatorade has numerous varieties, each promising to do this or that. Basically there are three types of sports drinks, each designed for a different purpose--Isotonic, Hypotonic, and Hypertonic.

Isotonic Sports DrinK--This is the most common sports drink. It's designed to
be drunk both before and during exercise. The formula consists of similar concentrations of salt and other electrolytes and sugar (6-8% carbs) as in the human body. Isontonic sports drinks usually contain about 120-170 calories per 500ml of fluid. Probably the most common type of sports drink, isotonic sports drinks are good for normal replacement of fluids lost through normal sweating incurred during middle and long distance runs. Branding plays an important part with sports drinks companies. In Australia, Powerade now has "Powerade Isotonic" drink playing off "isotonic" like it's something new, but it's the same as the regular Powerade here in the states. (Examples: Gatorade [original]; Gatorade G Series; Gatorade Endurance Formula, Powerade [original], PowerBar Endurance sport [powder], ZICO 100% coconut water, etc.).

Hypotonic Sports Drink--This type of sports drink contains a lower
concentration of salt and other electrolytes and sugar (carbs) than the human body. This type of drink replaces fluids but doesn't provide much of an energy boost. The hypotonic sports drink is a good option for a runner whose stomach won't tolerate the Isotonic or Hypertonic sports drink. But...if a runner uses hypotonic sports drinks on a long run, he/she will need to supplement with sports gels or some other carb food source to get in the needed carbs. Salty pretzels are a great option because the carbs are easily digestible and the salt will help ensure proper hydration/water balance. (Examples: Gatorade G2 Low-Calories, Powerade Zero, Amnio Vital)

Hypertonic Sports Drink--This type of sports drink contains a higher concentration of salt and sugar than the human body. They contain about 10-15% carbs and
usually about 240-320 calories per 500ml of fluid. These drinks are designed to replenish carb levels after exercise or to top off the glycogen stores before an endurance run. Hypertonic drinks are good for marathons or ultra runs. Due to the high levels of carbs, hypertonic sports drinks are not well suited for use during exercise. They absorb slowly and may cause cramping or bloating. (Examples: Gatorade Endurance Formula, Powerade Energy)

Junk Water--There's a 4th category of "enhanced water" that I like to call "Junk Water." Now don't get me wrong, water is water. So, drinking what I call "junk water" isn't necessarily bad for you, but I'm more concerned that
the fancy packing may make you think you're getting something you're not. Vitamin Water for example. Vitamin Water, is a great tasting flavored water that's been enhanced with various vitamins. While these vitamins may have some health benefits they're not going to provide any help with hydration after 60 minutes. Smart Water is another in this category. The label even reads "enhanced with electrolytes." But, if you read the nutrition label, there is no sodium or potassium. The electrolytes added are to enhance flavor. So, like Vitamin Water, it's expensive water that will keep you hydrated (just like tap water) for runs less than 60 minutes. (Examples: Vitamin Water, Smart Water; Aquifina Essentials, SoBe LifeWater, Dasani Plus, etc.)

Can't Tolerate Any Sports Drink--Are you a runner with a touchy tummy that can't seem to tolerate any sports drink? You're not alone. Many runners have stomach
distress when using sports drinks. These runners often just drink water. That's fine, but if they're going to be running more than an hour, they greatly risk dehydration and a host of other complications if they don't somehow replace those lost electrolytes. They're performance will wain too as they deplete their glycogen stores. Ever hit "the wall" in a marathon? That's often due to running out of fuel--glycogen. So, what are these runners to do? Well, luckily there are products such as Nuun and GU Brew that are electrolyte replacement tabs. You pop a tab in your water and it dissolves much like an Alka Seltzer tab. The tabs come unflavored or flavored. They only contain the
electrolytes, so someone with a sensitive stomach should not be bothered by their use in regular water. They will, however, benefit from the hydration and cramp-reducing benefits of the electrolytes. These runners will need to experiment with other ways of getting in some source of more easily digestible carbs to replenish those glycogen stores on long runs. Some runners find eating solid foods like pretzels, fig bars, or graham crackers works well. Others find that the energy chews or gels work okay.

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