Sports drinks play a specific and important role in hydration – but what exactly do they do, and who should be drinking them?
What are sports drinks?
Sports drinks – which are made from water, salts, sugars and flavouring – are designed to quickly replace fluid and salts lost as sweat during exercise. The salts help retain fluid in order to rehydrate your body, while the sugars help replace the glucose used during muscle contractions.
The sugar content of a sports drink is about half that of regular soft drinks. They are designed this way for rapid absorption. Regular soft drinks are slower to absorb, due to their high sugar content.
Who should drink sports drinks?
For athletes, sports drinks play an important role in hydration. It’s easy for them to lose a litre of sweat in an hour and it’s best if that lost fluid can be replaced as soon as possible. Just about every elite athlete will consume a sports drink during training sessions and endurance competitions (games or events that last longer than 60 minutes), or when training or playing in very warm weather.
However, most people don’t train as hard or as intensely as elite athletes, so if you are exercising for less than an hour at moderate intensity, water will rehydrate your body just as well (and with fewer kilojoules).
Are sports drinks a good option for kids who play sport?
Many parents have asked me when their children should be drinking sports drinks. As a general rule, water is the best way for most children under 16 years to rehydrate before, during and after sport. A sports drink can be an option when they’re older, if training sessions and competition become more intense and last longer than an hour.
What about energy drinks? Are they a good option for sport?
Energy drinks are definitely not a sports drink. An ‘energy drink’ is just a soft drink with added caffeine (with a similar amount of caffeine to a very strong cup of coffee or two cups of tea). The caffeine stimulates the brain to a higher level of alertness and may reduce the sensation of tiredness, but they aren’t a good hydration option because their high sugar levels mean they are absorbed more slowly. High caffeine drinks are not recommended for young children.
The bottom line
Sports drinks are good for rehydrating athletes during high-intensity or endurance exercise, but water is recommended for young people and anyone exercising at a moderate intensity for less than an hour.