This is because sports drinks include electrolytes (which help regulate nerves and muscles), carbohydrates (which help restore the body’s glycogen — or fuel — levels) and water (which helps hydrate).
“Sports drinks really do triple duty whenever you exercise for longer periods of time,” Girard Eberle says.
They not only help the body achieve optimal performance during exercise, like giving the body that extra carbohydrate kick when fuel levels have been tapped, but can be crucial for properly maintaining an endurance athlete’s body functions.
But electrolytes (which include sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium) are not created equal.
Pass the salt
“Sodium is by far the most important while exercising,” says Cedric Bryant, a physiologist and chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit group dedicated to fitness education and certification. Sodium is found in salt.
Mary Perry, a sports nutritionist and owner of Dynamic Nutrition in Alexandria, agrees and adds: “Sometimes I even tell people to salt their food more to get the sodium they need for exercise.”
But sodium, you might say, aren’t we supposed to cut that rather than add it?
“That public health message goes out to the average American who struggles to get the recommended 30 minutes of exercise a day,” Girard Eberle says. “If you are exercising for long durations and at a high level of intensity, you need sodium.”
According to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, the average person should consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. The average consumption is over 3,000 mg. Much of the sodium comes from processed foods, which fitness enthusiasts often skip.
“Women are particularly vulnerable to sodium depletion since we take public health messages to heart — maybe a little too much,” Girard Eberle says.
In order to get this extra sodium, you could in theory — aside from sports drinks — just add a pinch of salt to your water bottle. But the taste might discourage you from drinking altogether and that would obviously defeat the purpose.
“I recommend that people consume the beverage — excluding alcohol and soda, of course — that will encourage them to maintain a good hydration level particularly when working out in the heat,” Bryant says. “This recommendation is true for kids, too.”
Don’t worry about the carbohydrates or calories of a sports drink if you exceed the 60 minutes in a workout, Perry says.
“These sports drinks are engineered to have the perfect levels of carbs and electrolytes, and they are relatively low in terms of calories,” Perry says.