Understanding Sports Drinks to Choose the Right One for You

Confused by all the sports drinks vying for your attention? Learn more about what goes into your favorite sports drinks to find the one that works for you.

Since Gatorade hit the market in the 1960s, sports beverages have continued to gain popularity among athletes across the spectrum, from recreational to elite. As major sponsors of sporting events and professional teams, sports drinks have a presence that is hard to miss. They've almost become a food group in themselves, so it's important to understand the basics of your favorite beverage.

When Should I Use a Sports Drink?

Most sports drinks contain a blend of carbohydrates, sodium and potassium. Sodium is added to replace losses from sweat and to encourage thirst, which stimulates water and sugar uptake. Sports drinks supply carbohydrate for fuel during exercise, stimulate rapid fluid uptake, ensure optimal hydration and promote recovery post-exercise for activities lasting over an hour. Water is a great thirst quencher for exercise lasting 45 minutes or less.

Which Sports Drink Should I Choose?

The drink you choose depends on several factors: your weight and body type, your sport, its duration and intensity, environmental conditions, and personal preference. Basically, you need to balance the need to supply water against fuel. Sports drinks with higher carb content supply more fuel but reduce the rate of fluid delivery. Hence if water is your priority, choose sports drinks with lower carb content.

Sport Drink Classifications

1. Isotonic

The most commonly consumed sports drinks, they contain between six and eight percent carbs. The preferred choice of athletes engaged in middle to long-distance running and team sports, since they offer a ready source of carbs in addition to replenishing fluids and electrolytes. Examples: Gatorade G2, Powerade ION4, and Ironman PERFORM by Powerbar.

2. Hypotonic

These contain fewer carbs while supplying much-needed fluids and electrolytes. They are good for figure athletes (gymnasts, acrobats, dancers, jockeys) or for athletes who are seeking to improve their body composition and reduce weight. Examples: Low calorie Gatorade G2, Mydrade, Slazenger S1 and Hydralyte Sports.

3. Hypertonic

Higher in carbohydrate content, these are generally used to top up muscle glycogen stores post-exercise and as a supplement to daily carb intake. In ultra-endurance events where extra fuel is necessary, hypertonic drinks may be used during activity. They should, however, be used in conjunction with Isotonic drinks.

Recently, bananas, raisins and coconut water have been touted as natural alternatives to sports drinks/gels. Bananas and raisins supply ample carbs to fuel the body, but fail to supply adequate fluid. Be mindful of practicality and accessibility issues when attempting to replace sports drinks with foods during exercise. If you wish to try coconut water as an alternative to a sports drink, be aware that it might cause increased bloating and stomach discomfort.


Sports drinks that are acidic have been linked to dental erosion, so be conscious of this if you consume them frequently. Sports drinks can also cause upset stomach in some athletes because of the sudden rapid increase in carb intake during competition.

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