Are sports drinks spoiling your hard work?

Sports drinks manufacturers are worried about the way you’re consuming their products, and they have a point…


Last week a personal opinion letter in the BMJ highlighted the dangers of sugary drinks (1). Soft drinks are directly implicated in the development of obesity and all that goes with it.  In a world that’s rapidly getting  fatter – a 28% increase in overweight and obese  people in the last 33 years (2) – using, not abusing sugary drinks would seem to be something worth thinking about a little.

Of course, you might be sitting their thinking this does not apply to you, but if you use sports drinks you’d be wrong.

A few weeks ago I was flown over to Barcelona by the good folks at Powerade to the launch of their report on sports drinks use. They, and others in the industry, are worried about sports drinks usage, and with good reason. It’s a sad fact that right now many people are training and thinking they’re doing the right thing by taking a sports drink when in fact all they’re doing is ruining their results.


The main speaker was Prof. Greg Whyte OBE, who is about as heavyweight as you get in sport medicine and as a double Olympian he knows a little something about the practical sides as well. He presented a report (3) he put together about sports drinks and their usage, for Powerade.

gregProf. Whyte: Big Cheese

Sports Drinks: a definition

In his presentation Greg started by defining sports drinks which are water based drinks that contain carbohydrate and electrolytes. They’re designed to put into the body the things it most needs in the fastest possible time. This means supplying water and salts, aka electrolytes, to counter the sweat lost, and carbohydrate to improve the rate of rehydration and supply energy for training.

They’re actually well defined by the powers that be (4) and must contain carbs and electrolytes within defined ranges, which is sensible as letting the user know where they stand can help avoid dangerous dehydration, and a race is not the ideal place to be reading nutrition labels.

There are now drinks on the market that are lower carb or carb free and these might be the best bet for some. For others plain old water is going to be fine. Now, water is not sexy, and you may be tempted by the colourful bottles, but it is cheap and easy to get hold of. Think of it as ‘paleo’ if that helps!

Whatever you choose remember that dehydration kills performance and it can also put you in hospital and there’s no doubt that sports drinks can improve performance. So what’s the Problem?

The Problem: Right tool, wrong job

The thing is about any tool, you have to use it in the right context and for many guzzling carb containing sports drinks it the wrong tool for the hydration job.

Sugar is sugar and the ‘sport’ in ‘sports foods’ or ‘sports drinks’ doesn’t magically mean the calories don’t count, they all add to your daily intake, and you need to have earned that added intake otherwise it’ll contribute to body fat and all that goes with it. If you’re not training hard enough, or you aren’t lean enough then your activity might not warrant a sports drinks, in fact regular use might make you less healthy.

fat golferA sports drink, or maybe just water?

How, when, and where to use them for best results

How do you know if you should be using them or not? If you should, how often and how many should you use?

There are four factors that count here:

  1. Goals and current needs – How you’re doing health wise and what you want to do
  2. Duration – How long your training for
  3. Intensity – How hard you’re training
  4. Frequency – How often you train

The longer, harder and more often you train then the greater chance that you’re going to need a sports drink, but what type you choose depends upon wider needs.

Pretty vague, luckily Prof. Whyte put together this handy little flow chart for you detail when to chose the carb containing ION and when to go with the carb free ZERO. The same can be used to choose between a sports drink and water:


The Bottom Line

There’s a time and a place to use sports drinks, but overuse can contribute to fat gain just like any other food.

The smart athlete will use the tools that best fit their needs and goals and many will not use sports drinks, so don’t be afraid to leave them alone, or choose a carb free alternative when you don’t need the full carb version.



(1) Capewell, Simon. “Sugar sweetened drinks should carry obesity warnings.”BMJ: British Medical Journal 348 (2014).

(2) Ng, Marie, et al. “Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980–2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013.” The Lancet (2014).

(3) Sports Drinks and Power Performance Uncovered, Powerade and Prof Greg Whyte

(4) EFSA Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to carbohydrate-electrolyte solutions and reduction in rated perceived exertion/effort during exercise, enhancement of water absorption during exercise, and maintenance of endurance performance.

… and further reading

ACSM “Selecting and Effectively Using Sports Drinks, Carbohydrate Gels and Energy Bars”

Murray, Bob. “Hydration and physical performance.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition 26.sup5 (2007): 542S-548S.

ISSN Position Stand Energy Drinks


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