Sports drinks are everywhere. They have become so ubiquitous that you can find a cooler full of sports drinks at just about any gas station, convenience store or grocery store (except Whole Foods) in 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 or star player is such an institution, it has long ago become a sports cliché.
What about runners? If you’re training through our beastly summer, do you need to consume sports drinks?
The answer is absolutely not. You do not need to drink sports drinks to be a healthy, well-hydrated runner. Sports drinks will not provide you Lebron James-like leaping ability. Despite the pitches, drinking a sport drink will not transform you into an All-World football player. Nor are you likely to break the marathon world record—even if you drink a bottle every mile.
Unfortunately, the value of sports drinks can sometimes be lost in the hyperbole and over-the-top advertising that we’re bombarded by.
To be sure, for a runner, sports drinks provide very tangible benefits for one important reason: We sweat. And if you run this summer (which, by the way, is still more than a month off), you will sweat a lot. Buckets of it.
When you sweat, you lose small amounts of electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. These are two of the minerals that you need to help maintain proper water balance in your tissues.
Obviously, drinking water before, during and after running helps you stay hydrated. The difference is the commercial sports drinks include these electrolytes in their formula. The sports drinks provide sodium 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. On long runs, muscle glycogen is depleted and the sports drink can 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 (derived from a 4-9 percent solution of such sugars as sucrose, glucose, fructose and galactose) in sportsdrinks also help the body absorb the water in the sports drink faster than if you drink just plain water.
On a long run this summer and/or in a fall marathon, the greatest value of a sports drink is helping you to stay ahead of dehydration. Sports drink will help in that regard, but so will plain old tap water.
Still, the most important difference between hydrating with water and sports drink are the 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. The endurance boost from sports drinks won’t matter on shorter runs or races, but when you run an hour or longer, research indicates you can expect a 20 percent by hydrating with sports drinks. How much you drink depends on your size, but drinking four to six ounces of sports drink every 20 minutes is usually adequate. Heavy sweaters will need to drink more than that.
The other significant advantage of sports drinks over water 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 water.
The key is to find a sports drink you find most palatable. There are many to choose from such as Powerade, Sqwincher, Coconut water, Nuun and Gatorade and each drink has a variety of flavors. Nuun has proven to be especially popular with runners because it has less sugars than some of the others.
One subset of sports drinks that won’t help much are fitness waters. These will certainly help with the hydration puzzle (just like plain water), but they don’t provide enough carbohydrates to help at all with endurance.
Drinking sports drinks will offer some 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.
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 summer run or race.
If that sounds like you, a cold sports drink is an ideal a pre-race “food.” It’s easy to digest, provides useful carbohydrates and quite obviously, the fluids pre-hydrate your body so you don’t start a hot summer run on “empty.”
Bottom line: Are sports drinks worth it? If you want to run safely and stay hydrated through the summer, sports drinks are a valuable food for just about any runner.