Sports drinks such as Gatorade promise better athletic performance, but in some cases they’re not really necessary. Water does the trick in many cases. In fact, there’s a reason Gatorade is called a sports drink;-it was developed to help athletes involved in a rigorous football training program. Everyday exercisers don’t necessarily work out with the intensity or duration needed for the carbohydrate and electrolyte benefits of Gatorade.
You don’t necessarily need a sports drink to replenish your body during short workouts, says David K. Spierer, assistant professor of sports sciences at Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus. Water usually works just as well–especially if it’s ice cold, because it empties from the stomach faster that way. When you exercise for more than an hour, however, you need to replenish your electrolytes. “At that point in time you start to see a little bit of a decrease in sodium and potassium. Replenishing is helpful,” he says. Examples of electrolytes are calcium, sodium, magnesium and potassium, according to the National Cancer Institute. Sports drinks with 4 percent to 8 percent carbohydrate and 0.5g sodium/L are more effective than water for the longer bouts of exercise, according to the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. Gatorade is a 6 percent carbohydrate beverage.
Hydration during exercise is important. The body’s best defense against overheating is sweat evaporating from a person’s skin and water evaporating from the respiratory system. Adequate hydration is critical for temperature regulation and maintaining blood volume. Too much fluid loss can cause dehydration. Becoming dehydrated impairs athletic performance because it increases fatigue. Fluid losses of as little as 2 percent body weight can hamper athletic performance, according to Gatorade Sports Science Institute. The American College of Sports Medicine and National Athletic Trainers’ Association recommend hydrating before exercise as well as during and after workouts, whether it’s with a sports drink or water. The standard recommendation is 500ml two hours before activity, 150ml to 250ml every 15 to 20 minutes during activity, and 450ml to 675 ml for every 0.5kg of weight loss a person experiences after an activity.
A University of Wisconsin study found that people who drink Gatorade and walk on a treadmill for 90 minutes in hot conditions have a lower rate of perceived exertion than those who drink water. There’s good reason for that in cases of prolonged exercise, reveals a Texas Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs report. Using a drink that provides carbohydrate and electrolyte replacement along with fluid leads to better carbohydrate utilization in the body--and thus better exercise intensity during prolonged timeframes--when compared to either water or no fluid intake. The council also concluded that using an electrolyte replacement makes for better hydration than water during prolonged exercise.
Gatorade is more appealing than water to many people because it tastes good. People, especially children, are likely to drink more fluid during sports if the drink is flavored, according to a Texas Medical Association report. Most fluid and electrolyte replacement studies show that kids and grown-ups often don't meet their fluid needs during exercise. "If you're going to encourage children and young adults engaging in sports activities to drink fluids, remember that they will drink more volume of a flavored drink than they will plain water, if both are offered,” report author Michael E. Speer, M.D., told USA Football. Speer is a former TMA Council on Scientific Affairs chairman.
Sports drinks have become a multibillion-dollar, heavily-marketed product. Some of the biggest sports stars are recruited to promote them. In 2000, Gatorade brought in over $2 billion in sales, and since its introduction many new competitors have come onto the market. Sports drinks are more expensive than water or alternatives such as diluted fruit juice, are not needed for every workout, and also can have consequences if overused. For example, the Texas Medical Association reports a case of potassium-induced ventricular arrhythmia in a football player who took in 5g potassium daily due to sports-drink overuse, meaning his heart rate or rhythm became irregular. Sports drinks such as Gatorade are also higher in calories, says the Hughston Sports Medicine Foundation.
University of Florida researchers started testing a drink that combined water, electrolytes and carbohydrates on the Florida Gators football team in 1965. Their goal was to prevent cramping and dehydration. The drink, now called Gatorade, is credited with helping team members increase endurance and improve from a 7-4 record in 1965 to 9-2 record along with an Orange Bowl championship in 1967, according to USA Football.
- David K. Spierer, assistant professor of sports sciences at Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus
- Hughston Sports Medicine Foundation: Water Versus Sports Drinks