Sports drinks are targeted at active people, promising to re-hydrate them 'better' than plain old water after an intense training session because of the inclusion of electrolytes. But do sports drinks live up to this claim and are they healthy?
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals found in the body which can be obtained from food and drink. These minerals can conduct electricity i.e. send messages all around the body, and are vital for the functioning of our organs and cells (1). You can lose electrolytes through excessive sweating, urination, diarrhoea and vomiting, resulting in an imbalance.
What happens if my electrolyte balance is off as a result of dehydration?
An electrolyte imbalance caused by excessive hydration can affect your nervous system, heartbeat, kidney functioning, muscle functioning and the balance of fluid in the body (2). In extreme cases it can be fatal. It's why an IV drip of saline solution is given in the hospital when patients are admitted with excessive diarrhoea and vomiting (3).
Should I have a sports drink during or after working out?
The idea of a sports drinks is to replace the electrolytes lost through intense training sessions as a result of dehydration. For most people, after a short workout session (20-60 minutes) a simple bottle of water and a post-workout snack of grapes or a banana will work perfectly fine to replace any electrolytes lost.
For those who are doing longer sessions), endurance training (marathons, long distance swimming etc) or working out in a hot climate, they will need to take re-hydration further by drinking a liquid containing electrolytes throughout their workout and afterwards as well. This can help with fatigue and muscle cramps (4).
How about the sports drinks I can buy in the supermarket?
The trouble is, most sports drinks on the market contain a lot of rubbish; sweeteners artificial flavours, preservatives, and an awful lot of sugar; with many big brand sports drinks containing more sugar than a glass of coke. That said, during endurance training such as marathons, where you would struggle to eat on the go, the inclusion of glucose in sports drinks can be handy as a source of fast fuel, needed to carry on.
In pregnancy, sugary sports drinks are even used to test for gestational diabetes (you're given a blood test, told to drink Lucozade and then after 2 hours, you're tested again to see if your blood sugar remains significantly raised). I think the fact that a 'sports' drink is used for this purpose speaks volumes about it's nutritional profile. Yet alarmingly people are drinking these types of drinks on a regular, everyday basis or after a regular one hour workout where water and a healthy snack would suffice.
When it comes dehydration - whether from excessive sweating, D & V during illness or after endurance training, all a drink really needs to contain in order to replace lost electrolytes is sodium, potassium, chloride and magnesium (6). These are usually the ones a doctor will test for if you are severely dehydrated and it's suspected that you have an electrolyte imbalance.
So what's the alternative?
You can buy electrolyte solutions to add into plain water, squash or protein shakes (best added to whatever you're most likely to chug when you desperately need to re-hydrate). I wish I had known about these when I was suffering from hyperemesis in pregnancy and couldn't keep any food or water down, with the exception of lemonade. I was admitted to hospital throughout pregnancy for IV therapy.
These electrolyte add-ins or drops, such as Elete Holistic Hydrate have a careful balance of sodium, potassium, chloride and magnesium. There's also no junk; no glucose, no artificial flavors and sweeteners. They're also a lot cheaper to buy than sports drinks - because you only need one 25ml bottle to make 10L of electrolyte water.
The drops taste a little salty (because of the sodium) but I found that this was easily masked by adding a squeeze of fresh lemon added to my water bottle during a long two hour training session or I simply mixed it into my protein shake to have afterwards.
You can buy the drops in various bottle sizes direct from the Elete website and also from Amazon. The pocket size 25ml bottles (makes 10 litres) costs just £7.99 (or 79p per litre) - much cheaper than equivalent amount of bottled sports drinks!
*Disclosure: This post contains PR samples. As always, my opinions and research are my own.