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Do sports / energy drinks enhance individual performance?

Military health personnel wearing face mask discussing food options Army 1st Lt. Tanner James (left), a dietetic intern at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, consults with a colleague about a special meal for Major League Baseball’s opening day (Photo by: Bernard Little, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center).

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Sports drinks claim that they "increase performance," "rehydrate," and "refuel." What does this mean and should you include them as part of your work out?

What do sports drinks have in them?

Sports drinks contain electrolytes and carbohydrates (energy or fuel source). Carbohydrates replace the energy used to fuel your workout. Dextrose and high-fructose corn syrup are two commonly used energy sources.

Are all sports drinks the same?

Many energy sports drinks are available, however the energy source used for sports drinks varies. For example, some contain dextrose, a rapid source of fuel, while others use high-fructose corn syrup, which fuels muscles more slowly than dextrose. The cost of sports drinks can also vary with some being more expensive than others based on the cost of ingredients (high-fructose corn syrup is cheaper to produce than dextrose). Absorption rates of sports drinks is also different, dextrose has two glucose molecules, while high fructose corn syrup consists of glucose and fructose. Muscles absorb glucose more quickly than fructose. So if you are looking to fuel more quickly you will want to choose a beverage that is made primarily of dextrose.

Can sports drink increase your performance?

When it comes to "increased performance," there is no agreement on the definition. However, the use of sports drinks as fuel during exercise has been associated with performing an activity for a longer period of time.

When to include sports drinks...

Sports drinks aim to fuel the exercising muscle. However, not all exercise calls for drinking an energy-containing sports drink. You should critically analyze your exercise to ensure it meets the recommendations for adding energy containing sports drink. Different types of exercise require different amounts of energy replenishment. For example, intense exercise (an exercise level that makes it hard to carry on a conversation) lasting longer than one hour calls for ingesting, eating, or drinking 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour.

Additionally, endurance exercise (an exercise level of breathing hard but still being able to have a conversation) lasting greater than one hour also increases your need for energy replenishment. Exercise lasting less than one hour does not typically indicate a need for an energy-containing sports drink. Keep in mind that excess sports drink consumption can lead to weight gain.

Here are sports drink recommendations:

Exercise Time

Amount of Carbohydrate

Less than 1 hour

0 grams

Intense Exercise: 1 hour or longer

30 to 60 grams per hour

Endurance Exercise: 1-2 hours

30 grams per hour

Endurance Exercise: 2-3 hours

60 grams per hour

Sports drinks can aid in recovery after both intense or endurance exercise when used correctly. The next time you reach for a sports drink, make sure that drink is going to help you meet your performance goals; understand the amount and intensity of your exercise; read the sports drink label; identify the source of energy (dextrose versus corn syrup); identify how much energy (carbohydrates) it contains.

Making a smart choice will ensure you get the energy you need to enhance your performance.

For more information about diet and exercise, call your local military medical treatment facility's Nutrition Services Department.

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