If you’re an athlete or a sports fan, you know sports drinks. In fact, even if you’re not a fitness enthusiast, you might have sipped them without realizing it. Those brightly colored, fruit-flavored beverages are frequently used for hydration and revitalization when water just doesn’t seem like enough.
While water is the main ingredient in sports beverages, if you check the label, you’ll see a wide variety of ingredients, some that may not be familiar. Here’s a look at four of the most common additions to sports drinks, why they’re there, and what they do.
Energy Drinks vs. Sports Drinks
It’s a common misconception that energy drinks and sports drinks are one and the same, but they’re actually quite different. As the name implies, energy drinks are used to increase energy, focus, and motivation, which is why they frequently contain ingredients like guarana/caffeine and taurine.
According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, sugar is the main ingredient in energy drinks (after water, of course). Although sports drinks may also contain significant amounts of sugar, and in some cases even energy boosters like caffeine, they’re typically used to provide more effective hydration while replenishing essential vitamins and minerals.
In other words, energy drinks focus more on the mind, while sports drinks are designed to optimize the body. At the same time, it’s easy to assume that sports drinks are healthy and consume them too often, which can lead to a number of health problems, including obesity and type 2 diabetes, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Although sports drinks aren’t exactly the healthiest choice, they’re still better for you than energy drinks. Energy drinks are usually more comparable to sodas and are frequently marketed to younger people, while sports drinks are geared more toward athletes who are looking to boost their health and performance.
While some athletes do drink energy drinks or sports drinks before or even during a workout or event, most serious fitness enthusiasts rely on professional-grade pre-workout supplements for an energy boost because those types of supplements contain just the essential ingredients without added sugars and other fillers that may do more harm than good.
Being able to mix a customized concoction gives athletes more control and freedom with their supplementing, especially when they can use a portable blender to mix up quick shakes and smoothies whenever they feel like they need that extra boost. Sports drinks may work fine for casual athletes, but many in-the-know athletes are extremely enthusiastic about finding the perfect blend that fits their unique body chemistry and lifestyle.
It may sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but electrolytes are electrically-charged minerals in your body! Common electrolytes found in your body and in sports drinks include sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. Electrolytes play a number of vital roles, including the following:
- Keeping your water levels balanced
- Regulating your body’s pH balance
- Removing waste and replenishing nutrients in your cells
- Ensuring that your brain, heart, nerves, and muscles function properly
As you can see, electrolytes are absolutely crucial, not only to your athletic performance but to your overall health. When you perform vigorous exercises, you naturally sweat out a lot of those electrolytes, and they need to be replenished accordingly. It’s the same reason why people who are sick take electrolytes to replenish those that are lost through bodily waste and expulsion.
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re sweating a lot during a workout, it’s a good idea to replace those lost electrolytes in real-time so your body keeps working as it should. This is important because an electrolyte imbalance can actually cause some severe symptoms, including the following:
- Shifts in blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Muscle spasms
Of course, a mild imbalance is probably not going to be cause for alarm, but it’s always prudent to be proactive when it comes to your health, especially if you’re an athlete. Sipping on a sports drink is a quick, convenient, and (usually) tasty way to keep your electrolyte levels in check.
It’s worth noting that you don’t necessarily need sports drinks to get your electrolytes. Clean electrolyte powders can be added to your water bottle or supplements if you’d prefer to avoid all of the extra (and often unhealthy) ingredients found in pre-bottled sports drinks.
You may have heard of athletes carb-loading before a big game. Eating a big plate of pasta is a common practice among long-distance runners, for example. They do this because carbs provide the muscles and liver with a fuelled energy source called glycogen that gets used up during physical activity.
Of course, sports drinks aren’t filled with spaghetti—the carbs typically come in the form of sugars, such as fructose, glucose, and sucrose. As your body uses up its essential fuels, drinking sports drinks replenishes them. Naturally, this can help to improve athletic performance. It’s like filling up your car’s tank all the way before you go on a long drive.
The problem is that if you’re not exercising, you don’t need those extra carbs. That’s why some people prefer to drink low-carb or no-carb sports drinks when they’re not performing high-energy or endurance activities. Unless you really need those extra carbs, it’s better to drink good things for your body, such as natural fruit juices or water.
BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids) are the building blocks of protein. They perform a number of crucial tasks, including helping your muscles grow and recover. There are 20 amino acids, and nine of them are “essential amino acids” that your body can’t create on its own. Three of the essential amino acids are called BCAAs: valine, leucine, and isoleucine.
- Valine: Provides muscles with energy, improves endurance, and helps muscle tissues recover after a workout
- Leucine: Boosts energy levels, reduces muscle fatigue, increases protein production, and helps to prevent muscle soreness during recovery
- Isoleucine: Optimizes glucose uptake for increased energy
Finally, many sports drinks are fortified with vitamins. Depending on the vitamins, you can expect a vast range of health benefits. For example, vitamin C can help with immune system health, while vitamin B can provide a boost of energy if your B levels are low. Not all sports drinks contain vitamins, so be sure to check the label to see what you’re drinking.
Sports Drinks Are a Quick Fix
When you’re feeling dehydrated, a sports drink can be the perfect solution. At the same time, drinking them every day isn’t the healthiest choice due to the many additives. While they’re better than energy drinks, they’re not nearly as healthy as many people believe.
If you’re seeking the benefits of sports drinks without the drawbacks, you may want to look into supplements that contain electrolytes, BCAAs, and vitamins, as well as carbs if necessary. Always research the ingredients, and avoid sports drinks that aren’t transparent on their labels. The best way to feel and perform your best is to seek out natural, nutritious products made with clean ingredients.