Are sports drinks necessary?

Since the first sports drink was developed in 1930s South Africa, experts have debated as to whether or not they are actually necessary for us. The brands are household names – Lucozade, Powerade, Gatorade and more recently the popular alternative, Glacéau vitamin water. But should we pay premium prices for these drinks, or would we all just be better off with a bottle of water?

We can split sports drink into 3 categories:

  • Isotonic
  • Hypertonic
  • Hypotonic

Isotonic drinks contain salts and sugars in a similar concentration to what is found in your body. Hypertonic beverages have a greater concentration than this, whereas hypotonics have a lower concentration.

Typically, the purpose of a sports drink is to replace essential vitamins and minerals that are lost during exercise. Electrolytes are particularly identified by sports drinks brands as the substances that need to be replaced when exercising. These include sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium.

When people are looking to lose weight they might think replacing fizzy drinks with these sports drinks is clever. The problem with that is that often the main ingredient of these drinks are different types of sugar – glucose, fructose, sucrose etc. So using Lucozade as a weight-loss agent probably isn’t the wisest idea.

These companies don’t sell their products as a weight-loss agent though, but do they deliver on what they do promise? Well this isn’t some exploitative company trying to rip off the population. These drinks contain the nutrients that you lose when you exercise, and will help to boost the levels of them.

The general thought is that if you’re only doing half-an-hour on the treadmill, or dedicating a session solely to weight training, then you’re going to be better off with a bottle of water. This is simply because you aren’t losing enough of those essential nutrients to require an isotonic drink. However, if you’re taking part in high-endurance activities, a marathon for example, then you will need to replace chemicals like magnesium, potassium and sodium. There’s no doubt that in this situation, sports drinks are not just a better alternative to water, but vital in making sure you maintain a healthy level of hydration.

Another thing to consider is taste. Nobody I know drinks water because they simply love the flavour. An orange Lucozade Sport would always be my choice over water if I was just considering taste. Obviously though, the effects on your body need to be the primary consideration.

These drinks are a commercial success – in fact when 50 Cent sold his Glacéau vitamin water to Coca-Cola, he made more money than he did in his first 10 singles. This success speaks for itself, these products sell. I doubt you would be able to walk into your gym and not find somebody with a sports drink. On top of this all sorts of professional athletes endorse these products and use them regularly. I mean, who doesn’t want to be as successful as Gareth Bale or Mo Farah?

Then again, I can’t imagine Gareth Bale would put that incredible goal last week down to the effects of a half-time drink of Lucozade.

I don’t expect you would find many people that suggest you should replace water with sports drinks. In fact it is pretty much universally accepted that if you want to start getting healthier, or even if you’re looking to maintain a healthy lifestyle, then drinking more water should be your first port of call.

There are all sorts of studies out there, all showing different results. Some say that sports drinks provide no more or no less than water, whilst others suggest sports drinks can drastically help to improve your athletic performance. What we do know is that these drinks shouldn’t be had like a cup of tea throughout the day. But if you find yourself exercising and sweating a lot, maybe you’re starting to get tired, then a sports drink certainly does no harm and can provide you with that extra boost to carry on that maybe water wouldn’t.

Ollie Lawrence
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