Feb 17, 2017
Beverage Options
Susan Kundrat

Optimal hydration is the nutrition cornerstone for enhancing training and maximizing performance. If an athlete consistently needs to stay hydrated, the next question is “What to drink?” There are so many options for rehydration – everything from water to flavored water to fitness water to sports drinks to recovery drinks. For athletes who are practicing long (an hour or more) and hard, the top option is a quality sports drink. But what exactly constitutes a sports drink?

Several organizations have come up with their own definition for sports drinks, and they don’t always agree. But for those of us working with competitive athletes, sports drinks have a very specific need to fill. They must:

  • Be designed for use during exercise as a way to rehydrate
  • Contain electrolytes, which are typically lost via sweat
  • Contain carbohydrates
  • Be sold in ready-to-drink, powder, and/or liquid concentrate forms.

That means one of the first things we need to do is teach athletes what is not an appropriate sports drink. For instance, beverages like flavored waters, nutritionally enhanced beverages, and energy drinks are booming in popularity. There may be a place for these products in some athletes’ diets, but they should not be used for the purpose of hydrating during intense exercise.

Here is a quick reference for different drinks:

Sports drinks contain carbohydrates, electrolytes, and sometimes other added nutrients. They have been shown to enhance hydration status by stimulating thirst, replacing electrolytes, and promoting fluid retention. Carbohydrates in sports drinks can replace energy stores (blood glucose and liver and muscle glycogen) and supply fuel to maintain intense, high-level exercise for extended periods. Sports drinks are appropriate for use before, during, and after intense exercise.

We often tell athletes, use the 3-H rule as a guideline. Consume sports drinks whenever exercise is Hard, Hot, or at least an Hour long.

Flavored waters usually contain very few calories (if any) and sometimes include artificial flavoring, vitamins, minerals, and/or herbs. Familiar names include Propel and Powerade Option. These can be used for general hydration in place of water, but shouldn’t be an athlete’s only source of hydration during long or intense exercise.

How about flavored water with electrolytes? While this may be good for hydrating the casual athlete, the lack of carbohydrates makes it a poor choice for competitive athletes doing long or intense exercise. With so many choices in the pure sports drink category, there really is no reason to use products that may compromise the proven effects of sports drinks.

Nutritionally enhanced beverages may contain carbohydrates, artificial flavoring, added protein, vitamins, minerals, and/or herbs. This category includes Vitamin Water, Special K Protein Water, and SoBe Lifewater. These drinks offer extra vitamins or minerals in a liquid form, and added macronutrients like protein. Athletes may think these beverages are calorie-free, so they should be instructed to monitor the food labels carefully, as many have considerable calories.

Recovery drinks frequently contain a combination of protein and carbohydrates along with other nutrients designed to support post-exercise energy replacement and muscle recovery. Consuming 10 to 20 grams of protein along with carbohydrates within 60 minutes of exercise completion is beneficial for athletes, and recovery drinks are often a convenient, appealing source. But they should not be confused with the hydration benefits of sports drinks.

Energy drinks are very popular among athletes. These usually include caffeine and/or other stimulants, carbohydrates, artificial flavoring, and sometimes ingredients such as amino acids, vitamins, minerals, or herbs. The level of caffeine (some drinks contain 200 milligrams of caffeine or more in a two-ounce serving) and other ingredients in some energy drinks has raised concern among many health and sports professionals, and it’s often difficult to determine exactly how much caffeine and how much of other ingredients are in each drink. Energy drinks are definitely not appropriate as a hydration source-and in most cases, not an appropriate rehydration tool for athletes. In addition, sports drinks with caffeine should be chosen wisely, if at all.

Susan Kundrat, MS, RD, CSSD, is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and the Nutritional Sciences Program Director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the co-founder of RK Team Nutrition.

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