Sports drinks are everywhere. They have become so common that you can find a cooler full of sports drinks such as Gatorade, All Sport and Powerade at any gas station, convenience store or grocery store (well, except Whole Foods) across Central Texas.
Gatorade – by far the industry leader – has become almost as generic as Kleenex. No soccer game or football game is complete without a bottle of Gatorade. And the post-game celebration of dumping the Gatorade cooler on the coach is such an institution, it has long ago become the ultimate sports cliche.
What about runners? If you’e training through this summer for some of the upcoming fall and winter races, do you need to start drinking sports drinks?
The answer is absolutely not. You do not need sports drinks to be a healthy, well-hydrated runner. Sports drinks will not instantly transform you you into an All-World athlete. Nor are you likely to break the marathon world record – even if you drink a bottle at every mile.
Still, the value of sports drinks can sometimes be lost in the hyperbole and over-the-top advertising that we’re constantly bombarded by.
To be sure, for a runner, sports drinks provide very tangible benefits for one important reason: You sweat. And if you run hard enough in the Texas heat this summer, you will sweat a lot. Even if it ever becomes chilly again, you will still sweat which is a good thing.
But when you sweat, you lose small amounts of electrolytes such as sodium, magnesium and potassium. These are just three of the minerals that you need to help maintain proper water balance in your tissues.
Electrolytes are very important for the functioning of many vital processes. Essentially, what electrolytes do is regulate the fluid balance between bodily compartments.
Obviously, drinking water before, during and after running certainly helps you stay hydrated. The difference is the commercial sports drinks include these important electrolytes in their formula. The sports drinks provide sodium, magnesium and potassium which allows you to absorb water better into your body than drinking just plain water would.
Sports drinks also have a small amount of carbohydrates. Those carbs, combined with the electrolytes, also enhance the body’s ability to absorb water. On long runs, the muscle glycogen is depleted and the sports drink can also replace lost carbs and slightly extend your endurance.
But the greatest ingredient in any sports drink is water which is–of course– invaluable in itself. But the carbs in sports drinks also help the body absorb the water in the sports drink faster than if you drink just plain water.
On a long run or race, the greatest value of a sports drink is keeping you well-hydrated. But again, the differences between hydrating with water and sports drink are the electrolytes and carbohydrates. You will run better and longer if you can replace the water you are losing through sweating and the carbohydrates you are depleting with a cold sports drink. The carbs help to maintain a normal blood sugar level as you’re running and are a vital source of energy.
Without any doubt, you can extend your endurance by consuming a sports drink on a long run and/or during a marathon or half. How much you drink depends on your size, but drinking four to six ounces of sports drink every 20 minutes is usually adequate.
The other significant advantage of sports drinks is the taste. Most runners find they like the taste and when the sports drink is chilled, we are more likely to drink more of it than just plain tap water.
Doing so, will offer better protection against dehydration, even during (or after) an easy training run. Taking a good guzzle of a sports drink after you run will also speed your recovery by rehydrating you quickly. If you don’t properly rehydrate after a run – especially a long, hot one – you can enter a state of dehydration that increases the chances of waking up dehydrate the next morning.
Yet another advantage of sports drink is as a pre-race or run snack. Pre-exercise food is important so your body is completely fueled. But some runners just can’t tolerate eating much (if anything) before a hard run or race.
If that sounds like you, a cold sports drink is an ideal a pre-race “food”. It’s easier to digest, provides useful carbohydrates and quite obviously, the fluids pre-hydrate your body so you don’t start a run on empty.
Which sports drink is the best one for you? Impossible to say. Taste is certainly a factor as is the sugar content. Many sports drink contain high levels of sugar that are equal to soda. (Nuun, an electrolyte tablet which you mix with water, is much lower in sugar.)
Bottom line: Are sports drinks worth it? If you want to run safely through the summer and fall months, they are.