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Sports Drinks

By Fitness Pro Advantage

Are sports drinks really effective in producing better athletic performance?

You've seen the ads--the top stars from various sports gulping down "sports drinks" and jumping higher, running faster, and winning at whatever they are doing. But do these beverages really enhance performance?

Comparing a bottle of water and a sports drink, one finds that there is extra "stuff" that the drink contains that water does not. The primary constituent is typically carbohydrate of various forms. Does this extra stuff yield any benefit? It depends.

Most people exercise for 90 minutes or less at one time. If you fall into this category you will likely NOT benefit from the carbohydrate in sports drinks. This is because you do not deplete much carbohydrate during short bouts of exercise and the amount of glycogen (stored carbohydrate in your body) is more than adequate to sustain your exercise session. It IS important however to stay adequately hydrated no matter how long you exercise. If the session duration is less than 90 minutes, the beverage of choice is water.

Consuming a sports drink can actually add unwanted calories if you are exercising for a relatively short time. This can work against your efforts if you are exercising to lose weight.

If you are involved in activities that last longer than 90 minutes, you may benefit from the ingestion of carbohydrates contained in sports drinks. It is very import to properly evaluate the carbohydrate content of a sports drink. Certain forms of carbohydrate can actually be detrimental to your performance.

Various forms of carbohydrate produce different blood sugar responses in the body. The blood sugar response is responsible for the amount of total energy and intensity that you can exert. When the blood sugar content is low it could be caused by the ingestion of a high glycemic sports drink. An example of a high glycemic sports drink is soda or drinks that contain a lot of sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup, and most pure fruit juices. (1)

These high glycemic sports drinks cause a sharp increase of insulin in the blood that causes the blood sugar level to drop. The consequences of low blood sugar include reduced sports performance, muscle weakness, lethargy, and "hitting the wall" syndrome. (1)

It is also important to choose a sports drink with the proper carbohydrate concentration since carbohydrate sports drinks that are more than 8% carbohydrate are more likely to cause upset stomach. (3) An 8% carbohydrate concentration will not increase insulin dramatically and will not cause discomfort while exercising. (2)

So how do you determine the carbohydrate concentration of a sports drink? Use this simple equation as a guide:

* Find the amount of carbohydrates (g) and the serving size (in milliliters-ml) on the label (8 ounces is about 240ml).

* Divide the carbohydrate amount by the serving size (ml) and multiply by 100 to determine the percentage of carbohydrate.

(14g carbohydrate / 240ml) x 100 = 6%

Once you choose a sports drink that contains less than 8% carbohydrate the next step is to determine how much you should drink. A good rule is to always begin with 8 ounces about 20 minutes before the start of exercise. Then drink 4-6 ounces (half the amount of liquid in a soda can) every 15-20 minutes during exercise. (4) This process will provide you with the extra fuel you need for sustained performance at maximal levels!

1. Allen, Dr. A de Wees N. D. Sports drinks and the glycemic index. 2000 (online).
2. Coyle, E. F. and Scott J. Montain. Carbohydrate and fluid ingestion during exercise: are there trade-offs? Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise. 24(6): 671-677, 1992.
3. The Kitchen: Sports drinks. 2001 (online).
4. Woolston, Chris. Sports Drinks: Do I need sports drinks? 2000 (online).

Sports Drinks Copyright 2003 by Fitness Pro Advantage. Used by permission.

The above article appeared in the August 7, 2003 issue of the free FitTips for One and All newsletter.

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