Do I need sports drinks?
When you're sweating your way to a serious thirst, water isn't always enough. That's why old-time American ranchers used to drink batches of switchel -- a mixture of water, molasses, and vinegar -- during haying season. Workouts have changed since then, and, thankfully, so have the energy drinks. The water is still there, but the molasses and vinegar have been replaced with some form of sugar, minerals such as potassium and sodium, and the ever-mysterious "natural flavors." The end result is basically the same: a double shot of water and muscle food when you need it most.
There's no doubt that sports drinks can help you get through a long, hard workout. (If you're exercising for less than one hour straight, plain water works as well as anything else.) Despite all the talk in commercials about "electrolyte balance," the real value of these beverages lies in the carbohydrates: Sugars and other energy compounds help feed the muscles and delay fatigue. But according to a report in the journal Sports Medicine, added sodium and potassium won't do you much good unless you're sweating profusely for more than four hours (think triathlon).
One consideration for some people is the caloric content of these drinks. If you're trying to lose weight, a 70-calorie quaff means you have to cut back somewhere in your day's diet. If you do this by limiting yourself to one small serving of meat at dinner, great. But if you know you compensate by shunning the fruit bowl, think again about what your body needs most.
How should I use sports drinks?
Try taking a few gulps in the early stages of your workout. The goal is to prevent dehydration, not to cure it. Begin with 8 ounces 20 minutes before you start exercising, then drink four to six ounces (half the amount of liquid in a can of soda) every 15 to 20 minutes; that should be enough for most types of exercise.
Which sports drink should I choose?
In terms of ingredients, there's little to distinguish the three major brands of sports drinks: Powerade, All Sport, and Gatorade. As you can see from the comparison below, the big three are nearly identical in nutritional content, although All Sport has a few extra vitamins. In addition, Gatorade has twice as much sodium as the other brands (which you probably don't need) and fewer calories. (Gatorade adds the extra sodium to stimulate the thirst mechanism.)
A few other sports drinks have tried to find a place in the market by offering athletes a little something extra. For instance, Extreme Ripped Force is laced with chromium. (Contrary to widespread belief, there's no clear evidence that extra chromium helps build muscle or speed weight loss.)
Unfortunately, some of the extras may be dangerous. Extreme Ripped Force used to contain ephedra (ma huang), a powerful herbal stimulant that can cause nervousness, insomnia, nausea, spikes in blood pressure, and even heart attack and stroke. The FDA banned the supplement in 2004, about the same time the manufacturer took it out of the product. Still, this product throws in 250 mg of caffeine (almost as much as a 12-ounce cup of coffee contains), making it a poor choice for anyone who wants a jitter-free workout.
Aside from watching out for potential hazards, perhaps the most important factor in your choice is taste. If you find a drink that you enjoy guzzling, you're much more likely to get enough of it.
To help you pick your drink, here's a comparison of five brands. Note that the nutrition information is for an 8-ounce serving; you may well drink more than that during a long workout. Also, remember that the taste-test results are not objective: Your preferences -- as well as the prices at your local store -- may vary.
Size: 24 fluid ounces Price: $1.29 Label highlight: "All Sport isn't just a thirst quencher, it's a body quencher." Main ingredients: Water and high-fructose corn syrup Nutrition (8-ounce serving): 70 calories, 19 grams of sugar, 1 gram of other carbohydrates, 55 mg of sodium (2 percent of RDA), 50 mg of potassium (1 percent of RDA), and 10 percent of the RDA of thiamine, niacin, vitamin B-12, and pantothenic acid.
Taste test (fruit punch): Fruity and very sweet. Wouldn't be out of place at a Kool-Aid stand.
Taste test (lemon lime): Much like a flat, slightly watered down lemon-lime soft drink.
Size: 20 fl oz Price: $1.29 Label highlight: "Millions of prizes" (none won by taste tester) Main ingredients: Water and sucrose syrup Nutrition (8-ounce serving): 60 calories, 14 grams of sugar, 0 grams of other carbohydrates, 110 mg of sodium (5 percent of RDA), 30 mg of potassium (1 percent of RDA), and no other vitamins and minerals.
Taste test (fruit punch): Thin fruit taste, sour, slightly bitter aftertaste.
Taste test (lemon lime): Somewhat bitter and salty. The sodium is quite perceptible. Only a faint hint of citrus.
Size: 32 fl oz Price: $0.95 Label highlight: "Liquid Hydration" Main ingredients: water and high-fructose corn syrup, plus natural flavors of kiwi, melon, and pineapple Nutrition (8-ounce serving): 70 calories, 15 grams of sugar, 4 grams of other carbohydrates, 55 mg of sodium (2 percent of RDA), 30 mg of potassium (less than 1 percent of RDA).
Taste test (fruit punch): Like slightly watered down Hawaiian Punch. Slightly tart, not very sweet.
Taste test (green squall): Glows like antifreeze, tastes tart and fruity. More flavorful than the lemon-lime drinks.
Extreme Ripped Force
Size: 18 fl oz Price: $1.95 Label highlight: "The extreme hyper-thermogenic drink" Main ingredients: Water, maltodextrin, crystalline fructose, natural and artificial flavors, plus "extras" such as caffeine Nutrition (8-ounce serving): 100 calories, 12 grams of sugar, 12 grams of other carbohydrates, 30 mg of sodium (1 percent of RDA), 180 mg of potassium (5 percent of RDA), almost 100 percent of the RDA of niacin, 200 percent of the RDA of chromium.
Taste test (fruit punch): Strongly sweet and fruity (in a somewhat artificial-flavor sort of way). Goes down smoothly. Leaves a slight aftertaste.
Taste test (lemon lime): Sour and slightly bitter. Tastes like a cheap diet soda without the carbonation.
Size: 32 fl oz Price: $2.47 Label highlight: "All natural hydration for all out performance." Main ingredients: water, concentrated fruit juices, natural flavors. Main ingredients: (8-ounce serving): 70 calories, 17 grams sugar, 1 grams other carbohydrates, 25 mg of sodium (1 percent of RDA), 100 mg of potassium, and no significant amounts of other vitamins or minerals.
Taste test (berry juice): Fruit flavors are more genuine than in other sports drinks. Tart and sweet. A slight aftertaste.
Taste test (lime): Smells pungent and sour, and doesn't taste much better. Has a slightly metallic aftertaste. Definitely leads the sports drink pack in unidentifiable white sludge.