If watching sports on TV is any indication, you would think sports drinks are critical for optimal performance. During almost every professional sporting event you see, your favorite athletes are drinking from cups or bottles covered with the most popular sports drink labels and logos. But are sports drinks really necessary for sport and exercise performance? The answer is … it depends.
When it comes to little league baseball, YAFL football or soccer games, sports drinks are relatively useless and do little to improve performance or delay fatigue. Research clearly shows that athletes (from children to adults) participating in sporting events lasting less than 60 minutes do not benefit from the “energy” delivered from these sport drinks. The only benefit is the hydration aspect … the water content can address dehydration concerns especially if exercising in hot weather. The energy delivered by these drinks is not helpful to athletes for two reasons. First, the body’s energy needs are easily met by the muscles’ and liver’s internal stores of carbohydrates when exercising for 60 minutes or less. The energy delivered by these sports drinks is not used to support the activity. Second, the high levels of high fructose corn syrup found in almost all sports drinks actually slow down the availability of energy while at the same time causing greater dehydration. Fructose tends to be more slowly digested and absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, causing it to sit in the gut for longer periods of time. This in turn draws water from the body into the gut and can cause bloating and diarrhea. During sporting events lasting less than one hour it is most critical to keep the athlete hydrated and the single best way to hydrate an athlete is through regular water consumption.
Sport drinks tend to be more beneficial to athletes who are continuously training for periods longer than 60 to 90 minutes, such as long distance runners and cyclists. Even though this type of athlete can benefit from sport drink consumption, the sport drinks commonly found on the market may be too concentrated with high fructose corn syrup to be truly helpful. These types of athletes would benefit from diluting the store bought sports drinks by half … half regular water, half sports drink.
Finally, it may also surprise you to know that the majority of those sports drink cups and bottles you see professional athletes drinking from during a game are filled with water and NOT the actual sports drink.