Sports Drinks Are Not All The Same

Part of the Professionalism for Performance Series

Dr. Timothy Baghurst


There are many, many sports drinks on the market and plenty of powders to buy that promise more energy, endurance, speed, and other things. However, the marketing industry is very big for a reason, and much of the hype is just that. It is important to understand what sports drinks are and how they can and cannot benefit you as an athlete.

Sports drinks consist of a combination of electrolytes, carbohydrates (sugars), and water. Some companies add a variety of other elements (e.g., vitamins, minerals, complicated sounding ingredients), but what is most important is the balance between the three main ingredients. How these drinks differ is based on the concentration of water, electrolytes, and carbohydrates within the mixture. Electrolytes maintain fluid balance and carbohydrates provide energy. These drinks can be useful to provide immediate energy, maintain energy levels, and assist in recovery.

Sunset ThirstThere are three main types of energy drinks. Isotonic drinks are normally used by endurance athletes but can be useful if competing in several matches in a short period such as in a tournament. If a regular bottle of water contains 500ml, an isotonic drink will contain 20-40 grams of carbohydrates. This drink can be easily digested by the body and is absorbed almost as quickly as water. Such drinks are ideal when you have played a match that has caused you to sweat a lot. It helps to restore your fluid balance.

Energy drinks aim to delivery energy to the muscles and are designed for consumption during performance. They usually have a higher concentration of carbohydrates and therefore are more viscous (i.e., thicker). Be careful though. Energy drinks have morphed into something very different from 10-15 years ago. Now many of them contain ingredients that are not clearly explained on the label. A good example is caffeine. While it is listed as an ingredient, most drinks will not indicate how much caffeine is in the drink. There is some evidence that energy drinks can be beneficial for performance, but side effects have also been noted. In general, they are not recommended unless the product is very clear what it contains and how much it contains.  


Recovery drinks are best used immediately post-performance. They are crucial simply because your body needs to restore its glycogen levels. A meal helps to do that, but how often do you feel like eating immediately after a match? What if you have to play again within an hour? Including a little protein in your drink can be beneficial, but your carbohydrate intake should be twice that of protein. Most store bought drinks will also include some sodium (salt) to help balance the sodium lost during sweat.  


Here are a few other general tips to consider:

  • Our tastes change during exercise. Before a competition, try out the drink during practice to make sure that it is palatable.
  • Do not rely solely on “experts” and definitely not the marketing. Test out different drinks for yourself.
  • Sports drinks are mixed for a specific purpose. Therefore, if you dilute the drink by adding water you will not get the same effect. A recovery drink may turn into an isotonic drink, for example.
  • Sports drinks are not particularly effective unless used immediately before, during, or after a match. There is no reason to drink sports drinks at other times.
  • Chocolate milk has lots of research to support its benefits in exercise and sports performance. However, milk and exercise do not always combine well. Be sure to test out whether your stomach agrees with it during practice before trying it at a competition.
  • If a sports drink or powder contains no carbohydrates, as some now advertise, ask yourself what the benefit is. To perform, your body needs carbohydrates. If they are not in the drink, then its benefit is probably limited.