Are Sports Drinks Good for Athletes?

NPR posted a great piece recently on sports drinks.

In everyday life, I avoid any form of added, or refined, sugar.  I prefer to eat whole foods.  Though there’s a great deal of disagreement out there about what foods are truly good for us, and which are truly harmful, there’s little disagreement about the harm of added sugars.


The marathoner’s friend or foe?

And yet we’re constantly surrounded by advertisements for “sports” drinks and sports gels that are supposed to help us rehydrate, give us the energy needed to perform in our sport of choice, and power us through long or intense workouts.  And these sports fuels are mostly sugar.

I’m an on-again-off-again long distance runner who’s currently training for a marathon in early November.  And when I read up on what I’m supposed to consume during longer runs or races–water alone is apparently fine for runs of up to an hour and a half, but push any longer and you need to take in energy mid-run–I’m regularly advised to turn to these “sports” products.

But, if refined sugar’s so bad for me to consume during daily life, and these sports drinks and gels consist primarily of refined sugar, is it really a good idea for me to put them in my body when I’m engaging in strenuous activity?

The NPR article asks this precise question and, though it doesn’t give a definitive answer, it suggests that more and more top athletes, and their trainers, are turning them back away from these sports fuels toward real foods.

The world is back in balance.

But I still face a dilemma: Along the marathon course, there are water stations, and Gatorade stations, and sports gel stations, but there are not whole food stations.  I can’t pick up an apple, or a banana, or a fig during a race, unless I carry it myself.  (Maybe I could station friends strategically around the event to toss me my favorite fruits when I need them?)

And during my long training runs, which this summer and fall will stretch most commonly from 18 miles to 23 miles at a time, there are few fruit stands around.  But there are plenty of vending machines, food carts and snack stands with Gatorade.

So, in practice, what am I to do?

Lately, I’ve just been going with Gatorade.  I need the calories, I don’t want to run with whole foods, and I don’t want to take a major detour from my runs to find a grocery store or fruit stand.  I figure that if I confine my Gatorade consumption to one or two bottles during the course of one weekly long run, I’m not doing appreciable harm to my body.

After all, each Gatorade has about 130 calories, and a person of my height and weight burns about that many calories each mile he runs.  After (or during) a 20 mile run I need to consume 2600 calories just to make up for the run itself.  (On top of that, I’ll need to consume my normal daily allotment of calories, just to maintain body weight.)  Are 260 calories of sugar going to do much harm in that context?  I don’t really know, but until I have a better option I will deal with it.  It’s also a nice, tasty, refreshing reward on what can otherwise be a punishing run.

Do you rely on sports drinks or sports gels to power you through your sporting events?

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6 Responses to Are Sports Drinks Good for Athletes?

  1. John says:

    I’m at 8 mile runs at the moment so haven’t needed to take any hydration during my runs. That is about to change as my running duration increases. I’m going to try gels and use water. There was a programme here (UK) this week that talked about the sports industries claims on hydration, which mostly have no basis in fact and have not been scientifically tested and subject to peer review. The South African Special Forces conducted a proper scientific test on hydration, the outcome, drink when you are thirsty.

    • Doug says:

      John, I don’t have any more information on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re right, about hydration. I do try to hydrate before I feel thirsty on runs, particularly in the heat we’ve seen this summer in NYC, because I fear that by the time I’m really feeling it on a strenuous run in the heat, I’ll be dehydrated beyond the recovery point. But I do rely solely on water for this, on runs under half-marathon distance. It’s just the calories I rely on sports drinks/gels for, and those of course can’t be gotten from water. But the only reason I feel I need calories during a longer run is from old running books that I’m hoping are correct. No assurance that they are. Curious to hear how you feel about the gels after training with them. I’ve only used them for actual races because I fear their contents and don’t want to be consuming them daily/weekly, but they’re probably no worse than the Gatorades I’ve been consuming. Interested to hear what you think after you start upping your runs. Doug

  2. I’m also anti Gatorade, although during a hot race I’ve been known to give in at those stations. There are natural versions (like NUUN) available at running stores like Jack Rabbit. Personally, I spike my water with some fresh OJ and sea salt for the drink, and I blend dates with lemon or lime juice for “Gu”. I know it sounds like a lot to carry, but Lulu makes a lot of fun pocket-filled apparel:).

  3. Seanna says:

    I use Oki mixed with water:)

  4. Janine says:

    What about Coconut water?

    • Doug says:

      Janine, That’s a great question. I’d actually never paid any attention to coconut water or known anything about it. I just did some cursory research. It looks like it should be 100% natural and therefore probably a lot healthier than sports drinks/gels. Also, it looks as though it has a similar caloric composition, in that an 8 ounce serving has 46 calories (8 ounces of the Gatorade I’ve been drinking has 50 calories), most of which are sugar (just as in Gatorade, though the sugar in the coconut water is naturally there and unrefined). This makes it sound like it should be a winner. I will look into it next time I’m in the store to see whether my initial findings are correct, once I check the labels of commercially available coconut waters.

      Of course, coconut water isn’t available in the vending machines I find along my running path, and I’m not sure it’s at the convenience stands either. But I’ll take a look!

      Thanks so much for making this suggestion.


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