Going to Bat for Sports Drinks


I recently ran a half marathon – 13.1 miles in the heat and humidity of late June certainly ups the ante on an already challenging activity. Despite the heat the race was a success, but there’s just one thing I can’t get out of my head. As an avid runner, certified athletic trainer and sports dietitian with more than 15 years of experience I’ve got a bone to pick! Where was the sports drink!?!

Why sports drinks get a bad rep
Sports drinks such as Gatorade contain a combination of water, electrolytes and carbohydrates formulated in a proper balance to allow for optimal absorption and replenishment of what is lost on sweat. These are not to be confused with stimulant enhanced “energy” drinks, which I never recommend under any circumstances. I’ve also noticed a new trend of electrolyte-enhanced drinks that offer no calories or sugar – these may come in handy for certain situations.

In this sugar filled society we should be on the lookout for where to cut added sugar out of our diet and sugar sweetened sports drinks can be misused. Athletes of all ages need to identify when the sweet stuff can work to their advantage. There’s no need for my 6 year old to slurp down a sports drink after a short soccer practice or for a high school athlete to toss one back while sitting home playing video games. BUT there ARE times when these bevies can play an important role in performance. Sugar provides easily digestible energy to help maintain energy levels – this used during a workout in conjunction with proper pre and post workout fueling can make a HUGE difference.
Back to the half marathon
Race day arrives and I eagerly make my way to the beach side event. Despite the presence of sponsors (pretty decent ones I might add) I was shocked to see the race was only providing calorie free beverages – calorie FREE?! Water and a Stevia sweetened electrolyte drinks along the course and one station with a specialized gel product I wasn’t comfortable trying for the first time during a race! I’m running and pouring sweat from every pore in my body – I  WANT CALORIES – I WANT SUGAR! Exactly what a sports drink provides.

Another thing to consider when running a race is familiarity. I don’t suggest trying a new food or beverage during a race – EVER. Experiment with these things during training to prevent any undesired issues with tolerance – the last thing you need is stomach ache (or worse) while competing.

When to reach for a sports drink
Water is an ideal choice for fluid replacement for activities lasting less than 1 hour. If conditions are hot and humid and/or activity will last more than 60 minutes it’s time to reach for something that will help replace the fluid you are losing plus the electrolytes and carbs your body needs to perform its best.

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