Energy drinks have become just like yogurt; supermarket shelves are overflowing with so many different brands and varieties, each touting a myriad of health benefits, it’s a challenge to pick the right one for your needs.
For gym rats, weekend warriors and amateur athletes alike, selecting the right sports drink is imperative for top performance. Athletes need to be well-hydrated before exercise to limit dehydration and after working out to ensure proper rehydration of fluids and electrolytes lost in perspiration.
So, how do you know what’s right for you? Let’s start with the basics.
The goal of a sports drink is to provide an ideal ratio of carbohydrates, electrolytes and fluid to sustain activity. The most important ingredient in a sports drink is the carbohydrate. Working muscles require glycogen for energy, and during activity longer than 60 minutes, muscle glycogen becomes limited. Supplemental carbohydrates will feed your muscles and keep you going.
If you’re trying to lose weight and you think that selecting a low- or reduced-calorie sports drink is smart, think again. When carbohydrates (such as glucose, fructose and sucrose) are substituted with artificial or no-calorie sweeteners, the sports drink loses nearly all of its intended function for athletic performance.
For maximum benefit, choose a sports drink that has 10 to 20 grams of carbohydrate per 8 ounces. And select a drink that contains a mixture of different carbohydrates. Our bodies can absorb only a certain amount of carbohydrates each hour. However, when different sugars are present, each having a slightly different molecular composition, energy uptake is maximized.
If you’re only exercising for an hour, there really is no need to be guzzling sports drinks. Generally, water is sufficient to keep the body hydrated and your core temperature low. Or, in the case of short-duration activities for weight loss, a low-calorie sports drink may be helpful.
For the endurance runner, swimmer and cyclist, replenishing electrolytes is imperative. Granted, everyone has a different sweat rate, but an athlete should try to select a sports drink with a higher sodium level. A drink with approximately 200 milligrams of sodium per 8 ounce serving is a good choice. Quality sports drinks also will include potassium, calcium and magnesium to help regulate fluid balance.
While it’s trendy to add vitamins to sports drinks, research hasn’t shown conclusive evidence that this really enhances performance. The rationale behind adding vitamins — B vitamins in particular — is that they play an important role in energy metabolism. From my perspective, the serious or competitive athlete would be better served with a sports drink that’s designed just to provide fluid, carbohydrates and electrolytes. The longer you sweat, the more electrolytes you lose, and the right drink will offset these mineral losses and prevent cramping.
Everyone is different, and so is tolerance to sports drinks. What’s “incredible” for you may not be for me. Taste is also a big and very subjective factor, so experiment with different types and flavors, and see what you enjoy most and what helps you derive the greatest benefit.
Tina Ruggiero, M.S., R.D., L.D., is a nutrition expert and award-winning author. Her newest book is “The Truly Healthy Family Cookbook.” Find Tina at www.TinaRuggiero.com.