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Should you drink sports drinks instead of water?

Solltest Du Sportgetränke anstelle von Wasser trinken?

If you've ever watched sporting events live or on TV, then you've probably seen athletes drinking brightly colored drinks before, during or after a competition. These sports drinks are a big part of sports worldwide and also a huge business. Many people believe that these drinks are some kind of magical elixir that can boost your performance even if you're not an athlete. Others, however, will tell you that all this is pure marketing and you should just stick to water.

Water vs. sports drinks

Water makes up the majority of your body weight and is crucial for the body to function properly (1). In addition to excreting water through urine, sweat and feces, your body also continuously loses water through your skin and the air you exhale (2).

To compensate for these fluid losses and promote good health and exercise performance, it is often recommended to drink fluids regularly throughout the day (3, 4). Although daily fluid requirements may vary, the recommended fluid intake is 2.7 liters for adult women and 3.7 liters for adult men (5).

The primary ingredients of sports drinks

Water is the primary ingredient in all sports drinks, but these drinks also contain other substances including carbohydrates and electrolytes to enhance performance. The carbohydrates contained in sports drinks often consist of sugar variants such as glucose, sucrose and fructose, but can also occur in other forms.

Typically, sports drinks contain 6 to 8% carbohydrates. A six percent carbohydrate solution contains about 14 grams of carbohydrates per 250 ml of drink (6). However, some sports drinks are also low or no sugar to make them more appealing to those who want water and electrolytes without the extra calories.

Electrolytes - minerals that carry an electrical charge - are essential for the normal functioning of the body (7). The primary electrolytes found in sports drinks are potassium and sodium (8).

Popular brands of sports drinks include Gatorade®, Powerade® and All Sport®. However, although there are many different brands, there is probably not much difference in effectiveness between most sports drinks on the market (6).

Although numerous studies have been conducted on sports drinks, some people have questioned the value and validity of these studies. In particular, the relationship between the major manufacturers and the scientists who conducted these studies is considered questionable by some critics (9).

Summary: Sports drinks contain water and electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. Most drinks of this type also contain carbohydrates. There are many different brands of sports drinks on the market, but there is probably not much difference in their effects on the body.

Sports drinks can have benefits for athletes

The main components of sports drinks - water, carbohydrates and electrolytes - are important for different aspects of athletic performance. Water and electrolytes are lost through sweat and it is important to replace these, especially for longer training sessions (10).

Your body stores carbohydrates in your muscles and liver in the form of glycogen, which serves as a source of energy during physical exertion (11). Consuming carbohydrates before or during exercise can help slow the depletion of your body's carbohydrate stores (10), which can result in longer-lasting performance.

Sports drinks are designed to contain these three important ingredients to improve both exercise performance and recovery (8). Many studies have investigated the effects of sports drinks on exercise performance and many of these studies have been conducted with athletes.

Short duration exercise

It is not entirely clear whether sports drinks are beneficial for shorter training sessions. One meta-analysis looked at nine studies of athletes running or cycling at higher intensity for 30 to 60 minutes (6). Six of these studies showed that sports drinks boosted exercise performance. However, all study participants were trained athletes who completed intensive training.

One study of trained cyclists found that a sports drink improved performance by about 2% compared to a placebo during one hour of intense cycling (12).

However, despite these results, there is no strong evidence to support the benefits of sports drinks during shorter duration exercise such as jumping, sprinting and agility exercises (13). Nor have any clear benefits been demonstrated for training with weights (14, 15).

Team sports and phased training

The use of sports drinks is widespread in team sports such as soccer, basketball and American football. These sports involve phased activities that alternate periods of intense exertion and rest.

Some research shows that consuming carbohydrates such as those contained in a sports drink can reduce fatigue and increase performance in sports such as soccer or rugby (13).

Other studies have investigated cycling for 1.5 to 4 hours with periodic breaks. A meta-analysis found that in 9 out of 12 studies investigating this type of training, athletes performed better when a sports drink was consumed instead of a placebo (6).

Prolonged continuous training

Unlike intermittent training, continuous training is performed without rest intervals. Many studies have investigated the effects of carbohydrate drinks during continuous exercise such as running or cycling lasting 1 to 4 hours or longer. The majority of these studies showed improvements in performance when these drinks were consumed (6).

Similarly, athletes in team sports such as soccer, which are most similar to continuous exercise, are most likely to benefit from sports drinks (13). These improvements in performance may be due to both the fact that sports drinks provide carbohydrates for energy when the body's carbohydrate stores are depleted and that they help prevent dehydration (10).

How many carbohydrates?

In general, the amount of carbohydrate that can be beneficial during exercise will increase as the duration of exercise increases. Scientific research has shown that small amounts of carbohydrates (less than 30 grams per hour) can improve exercise performance during exercise lasting between 30 and 75 minutes (10).

It is recommended to consume up to 30 grams of carbohydrates per hour or about half a liter of a sports drink containing 6% carbohydrates for training sessions lasting 1 to 2 hours. For training sessions lasting 2 to 3 hours, more carbohydrates - up to 60 grams per hour - may be beneficial (10).

However, these recommendations apply to continuous high-effort activities without rest and are not applicable to intermittent activities such as training with weights.

Summary: Sports drinks can enhance athletes' performance during different types of exercise, with the clearest benefits observed during prolonged activities without breaks. The amount of carbohydrate that can be beneficial probably increases as the duration of exercise increases.

Sports drinks are unnecessary for most people

There are several factors you should consider when determining whether sports drinks may be beneficial for you.

Type and intensity of exercise

The first thing you should consider is your training habits, as well as the duration and intensity of your training. Although sports drinks can be beneficial for athletes who do long or intense workouts, for the average gym-goer such drinks are probably unnecessary. If you are doing a light to moderate workout such as walking or jogging that lasts less than 60 minutes, then you probably won't need sports drinks.

Even if you're just doing a weights workout, you probably won't need sports drinks - even if you spend more than an hour in the gym. You'll probably spend a lot of that time resting between sets, and weight training doesn't deplete your carbohydrate stores as much as endurance training does (14).

If you choose to use a sports drink, you should probably consume smaller amounts for workouts lasting less than 60 minutes and no more than 30 grams of carbohydrates for workouts lasting 1 to 2 hours (10).

Sports drinks could affect your weight loss

For those trying to maintain or lose weight, another important factor to consider is energy balance, or the difference between the amount of calories you consume and the amount you burn. If you want to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume.

If sports drinks are unnecessary for the type of exercise you are doing, then consuming these drinks will provide you with unnecessary calories which could hinder your weight loss. However, some research has shown that consuming sports drinks during a workout such as running does not make up for the calories burned during the workout itself (16).

For example, a person weighing 68 kilos burns 240 kcal during 30 minutes of jogging. Consuming 350 ml of a regular sports drink provides an average of 20 grams of carbohydrates, which is equivalent to only 80 kcal (17).

However, it is important to realize that some activities will not burn many calories, even if they feel hard. Exercising with weights will burn perhaps 120 kcal during a 30 minute session if you are 68 kilos as in the example above (18).

Think about whether a sports drink is necessary for the type and duration of your workout and pay attention to the amount of calories you consume from these drinks.

Summary: Although sports drinks can improve athletes' performance during some types of exercise, they are unnecessary for most people. If you do consume these drinks, it can also be important not to consume them in excessive amounts.

Many different drinks can help you stay hydrated

Much of the marketing for sports drinks focuses on their ability to keep you hydrated by replacing water and electrolytes that are lost through sweat.

Staying hydrated

How much you sweat can vary based on many different factors, including exercise intensity, your level of training and the environment. The rate of sweating in humans ranges from 0.3 liters per hour to 2.4 liters per hour (19).

In this context, it is important to note that it is recommended that athletes should not lose more than 2 to 3% of their body weight through sweating during exercise (10).

However, it is debatable whether sports drinks are more effective than water when it comes to keeping your body hydrated.

Other options to stay hydrated

One study compared 13 different drinks, including sports drinks and water, to see how well they hydrated the body (20). The scientists provided athletes with one liter of each of these fluids and collected the urine that the subjects excreted over the next few hours.

The authors of the study found that milk, orange juice and an oral rehydration solution provided the most hydration. Oral rehydration solutions are specifically formulated to cause fluid retention and contain higher amounts of sodium and potassium than normal sports drinks.

An interesting finding of this study was that no difference was observed in the hydrating abilities of water, sports drink, tea and cola. Even drinks that are commonly considered dehydrating, such as coffee and beer, hydrated the body just as well as water. Other research also suggests that coffee can keep your body hydrated, contrary to popular belief (21).

It's important to note that most beverages can contribute to your daily hydration needs and can help keep you hydrated. Now of course this doesn't mean that you should drink beer during exercise, but it does show that a wide range of drinks can ensure good hydration throughout the day.

Enjoy your drink

Another factor to consider is that the amount you drink is also related to how much you like the drink in question.

Scientific research has shown that the taste of a sports drink makes athletes drink more than if they were only given water to drink (22, 23). As a result, a drink that tastes better could be beneficial in increasing fluid consumption in athletes who are at risk of dehydration.

Summary: Although sports drinks can help you stay hydrated, many other beverages can do the same job. Water and sports drinks provide a similar level of hydration, although the taste of sports drinks may encourage some people to drink more.


Sports drinks are very popular among athletes and recreational athletes, but it is debatable whether they are better than plain water. The main ingredients of most of these sports drinks are water, carbohydrates and electrolytes.

Scientific research supports their benefits for athletes and those undertaking long and intense training sessions. The recommended amount varies based on the type of workout. However, most average active people do not exercise intensely or long enough to really need sports drinks.

In addition, many beverages can hydrate your body just as effectively as sports drinks - including plain water. When choosing your sports drink, you should also be aware of the calorie content.

All in all, sports drinks can be beneficial for active people and athletes, but they are not necessary for most people.




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