Patrick J. Skerrett

Trade sports drinks for water

Nicely timed for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has published several articles revealing the “truth about sports drinks.” That truth is this: drink when you are thirsty and don’t waste your money or calories on sports drinks—choose water instead.

Sports drinks are flavored beverages that contain carbohydrates (usually sugar) and minerals such as sodium and potassium. Those minerals are generally referred to as electrolytes.

The granddaddy of sports drinks is Gatorade, a beverage created in the 1960s for the University of Florida Gators football team. The British Medical Journal says it “started life as a simple mixture of kitchen foodstuffs” like water, salt, sugar, and lemon flavoring. It’s more complicated than that today. The industry is now dominated by multinational companies like Pepsi and drug companies like GSK. In the United States alone, sales of sports drinks exceed $1.5 billion a year.

Before the rise of sports drinks, athletes (and the rest of us) drank water when we exercised or got sweaty. How did we know when to drink, or how much? The way humans have known for eons—thirst. But as the BMJ team describes, sports drink makers spent a lot of money sponsoring less-than-rigorous research damning thirst as a guide to hydration and casting doubt on water as the beverage for staying hydrated. To make matters worse, recommendations once aimed at endurance athletes have now trickled down to anyone who exercises.

Overhydration is more worrisome

There is no evidence that dehydration has ever killed a marathoner, Dr. Arthur Siegel, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a medical advisor to the Boston Marathon, told the BMJ. But the drumbeat that athletes must stay fully hydrated and drink before they become thirsty has spawned a new problem—overhydration. That’s what killed a healthy, 28-year-old woman during the 2002 Boston Marathon. She collapsed a few miles short of the finish line and died a day later. The cause of death was hyponatremia—too little sodium in her blood caused by drinking too much fluid before and during the marathon. According to the BMJ, 16 marathoners have died and more than 1,600 have become critically ill due to overhydration and hyponatremia.

Sports drinks don’t appear to prevent hyponatremia. A study of marathoners by Harvard-based researchers found that 13% had some degree of hyponatremia, and that it was just as likely to happen among those who guzzled sports drinks during the marathon as it was among those who stuck with water.

Trust thirst, drink water

I asked Dr. Francis Wang, the team physician for Harvard athletics, what he tells athletes about thirst and fluids. “For most players, thirst is a good guide for hydration,” he said. Athletes who have had muscle cramps may need to drink extra, and may need more electrolytes.

What about the rest of us, who may run a couple miles in the morning or play a few sets of tennis? Thirst should be our guide, and water our beverage.

One concern with sports drinks is that they deliver unneeded calories. Some contain 150 calories, the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar. Children definitely don’t need sports drinks, says Dr. Claire McCarthy, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. As for adults, Tim Noakes, professor of exercise and sports science at University of Cape Town in South Africa told the BMJ, far from turning casual runners into Olympic athletes, “If they avoided the sports drinks they would get thinner and run faster.”

Comments:

  1. Đỗ văn thành

    So, should recreational runners always stick to water? I ran the SF marathon last weekend and started drinking sports drinks after mile 10 at every aid station. I do not use sport drinks on a regular basis. Do you know of any studies that compares performance, endurance, and/or mental fatigue between runners who use sports drinks and those that do not? I found that the sports drinks left a dry feeling in my mouth which was not refreshing. I continued drinking them during my race because I thought the sugars could perk me up a bit!

  2. emedoutlet

    I don’t understand sports drink. They all are chemicalized and any kind of chemical will more harm than benefit. Water is natural and natural drink is the best drink. The only fact that need to keep in mind that water should be pure. I would rather say that boiled water id the best drink.

  3. Christina

    It is crazy to me how many people think that sports drinks are healthy and okay to drink – even if participating in fitness related activity. Most people aren’t aware that they’re downing that many calories… to them, a liquid isn’t the same as a solid in terms of calories. And while not all calories are the same, when it comes to sugar – it is!

    Interesting article to read, though… definitely an eye opener for anyone who might be into fitness and think it’s okay to drink these all the time!

  4. Kelly Abdellatif

    Very interesting article. I’ve been anti sports drinks for awhile, but I had bought into the whole hydration media hype. Its good to know that once again we can listen to our body for clues. I was not aware that people were dying as a result of over hydration. Thank you for the article.

  5. Fubao

    Water is better than sport drinks. Tap water is better than bottled water

  6. Careful X

    Usually energy drinks are better suited for long distance races. But the thing is they often leave you dehydrated, so for me personally water is better suited. Besides energy drinks often have a detrimental effect on your health nowadays. Way too much harmful chemicals you don’t even know about!

  7. Christine Frisbee

    This information about drinking water and the controversy over sports drinks goes towards promoting healthy living. It partners well with our mission to show natural and organic food and products so that we live a healthier life.

  8. Socialible

    This a great article, a lot of sports drink have a bunch of sodium and sugar.

  9. cosmic

    I also found that the sports drinks left a dry feeling in my mouth and were not refreshing at all. I agree trust thirst, drink water!

  10. tips membeli mobil

    oh, now am knowing if we too much drinkings can cause bad body condition,, for me this is idea, we can use any method to agree… be careful :-)

  11. gail

    I have been told by several athletes that natural coconut water makes a difference when running or distance hiking.

  12. Anonymous

    Good post. Very informative. I too agree with the point that taking lot of water after heavy dehydration leads to severe metabolism issues. And at the same time drinking water instead of any other drinks will be the good remedy. Always natural lead people a hygienic life.Thanks for your post Skerrett!

  13. nam anh

    Absolutely, drinking water is far more better than that of drinking any kind of energy or cold drinks. Thrust which is satisfied by water cannot be satisfied by any kind of other drink. Other than this our concern should also be on saving water as much as we can, because water is a vital resource which is used very carelessly. Some serious efforts needed to make this resource available for future use as well.

  14. Andrew berry

    While. consuming sports drinks isn’t absolutely necessary to finish a race or competition, they may be beneficial to achieve your personal best. The body uses 90 mg/dL of sugar to carry out normal basal functions. Well, when you exercise, these demands go up greatly. So where does the energy come from? This energy comes from a few sources: the breakdown of stored glycogen, glycolysis which is basically energy production from circulating sugars post digestion, from oxidation of fatty acids and finally from the breakdown of muscle protein. Providing a fluid, sugar, and electrolyte mix in about a 4% glucose concentration can help maintain a constant energy source so that too much muscle protein isn’t used. Additionally, I think branched chain amino acids should be added to this mixture to further prevent muscle protein loss. This is what I have my endurance athletes do for optimal performance. Of course this is only one facet of an athletes program. If proper nutritional and training needs are not being met then the addition of a sports drink won’t make you lance Armstrong.

  15. Anonymous

    That would also be my question. That water is in general more healthy than any sports drink of the beverage industry is nothing really new, but what about performance during an exhausting event like a marathon? Isnt the sugar in it helping to maintain a certain “power level”?
    Thats at least how I feel during marathons. During normal training I usually always drink water.

  16. Ted Wootton

    My understanding of this issue is that hyponatremia can be caused by being VERY dehydrated and following up by drinking a LOT of water. So, normal thirst can be satisfied by drinking water with no ill effects but sport drinks might be indicated after SEVERE deyhdration. Water, but not a large quantity of water, can also be effective. A large volume of water after severe dehydration can upset the balance of electrolytes in the body.

  17. Neil

    Absolutely, drinking water is far more better than that of drinking any kind of energy or cold drinks. Thrust which is satisfied by water cannot be satisfied by any kind of other drink. Other than this our concern should also be on saving water as much as we can, because water is a vital resource which is used very carelessly. Some serious efforts needed to make this resource available for future use as well.

  18. Marielaina Perrone DDS

    When running long distances like that the sport drinks might be the most effective for you but you are not the norm. Too many in our society drink sport drinks all day long with deleterious effects on general and oral health.

  19. cityrunner

    So, should recreational runners always stick to water? I ran the SF marathon last weekend and started drinking sports drinks after mile 10 at every aid station. I do not use sport drinks on a regular basis. Do you know of any studies that compares performance, endurance, and/or mental fatigue between runners who use sports drinks and those that do not? I found that the sports drinks left a dry feeling in my mouth which was not refreshing. I continued drinking them during my race because I thought the sugars could perk me up a bit!

    Thank you!