Sneaky Little Sports Drinks

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There’s a plethora of sports drinks on the market, and you’d have to be living under a rock not to know it. But are they really necessary? Do they deliver on what they promise? And is it possible to make your own sports drink for a lot less money?

Let’s take those questions one at a time. Are sports drinks necessary? For people in certain situations, yes. Sports drinks typically contain electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium) which we lose when we sweat. If we're sweating large amounts over a long enough period of time, that can cause serious problems.

The most predominant electrolyte we lose when we sweat is sodium, with its anion chloride coming in a close second. Thus, sodium chloride is the most important electrolyte needed in a sports drink. Interestingly, there are several products on the market that tout themselves as having the “optimal blend of electrolytes for athletic performance”, but upon closer inspection, one finds that they contain sodium bicarbonate, not sodium chloride.

And, if you’re a “salty sweater” – that is, someone with a high sweat rate – it’s especially important that you replenish sodium during and after intense activity because you could be losing a significant amount of sodium.

So are sports drinks delivering on their promises? Yes and no. If they contain sodium, then they are helping you regulate fluid balance and keep muscle cells functioning at their best. 

It's worth mentioning that coconut water has very little sodium and is not recommended as a sports drink. It's fine to drink during the day but not during exercise, especially in hot weather.

What about calcium and magnesium? The amount of calcium and magnesium that we lose in sweat is so small, it’s debatable whether they’re necessary to consume during exercise. In addition, magnesium citrate can have a laxative effect and if you combine that with race anxiety you may end up with the dreaded “runner’s trots” (diarrhea experienced during or after a hard run).

In fact, magnesium citrate is a saline laxative that is thought to work by increasing fluid in the small intestine. According to an article in WebMD, oral magnesium citrate products are “used to clean stool from the intestines before surgery or certain bowel procedures (e.g., colonoscopy, radiography), usually with other products and may also be used to relieve constipation. It usually results in a bowel movement within 30 minutes to 3 hours.” Thus, magnesium may be delivering more than you bargained for! (See

Check the labels of popular sport drinks and you’ll often find magnesium citrate in the list of ingredients. How much, you ask? One scoop contains 4% of the DV for magnesium which is about 12 mg per scoop. That’s not a huge amount, but if you’re sipping this drink over a 1-5 hour run or ride, you just might find yourself in a mad dash for the porta-potty. Kind of gives new meaning to the phrase “know before you go”, doesn’t it?

Another ploy that manufacturers use to get you to buy their sports drink, is to fill it up with vitamins, which are unnecessary during exercise. In fact, vitamins consumed during exercise provide no performance benefit whatsoever. The only thing they do for a sports drink is drive up the price.

Another problem with sports drinks is that some of them contain zero calories which is fine for sipping on throughout the day but not during exercise. You need about 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour (or more) of endurance activity to maximize performance.

For those sports drinks that do contain carbohydrates, beware of misleading claims about the source of carbohydrate. One leading sports drink likes to brag that its product uses “non-GMO-sourced dextrose” to help the body “absorb fluids and nutrients faster”. Sounds impressive, right? However, there’s not a single research study showing that non-GMO-sourced dextrose increases the rate of fluid or nutrient absorption. While it’s true that sugar in the form of sucrose or dextrose can increase the rate of fluid absorption, it doesn’t have to be “non-GMO-sourced”. Again, they’re trying to get you to think that their product is superior because of the type of dextrose it contains.

The fact is, there are only four things your body needs during prolonged exercise: water, sodium chloride, potassium, and some form of carbohydrate. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that sport drinks contain “~20–30 meqILj1 sodium chloride, ~2–5 meqILj1 potassium and ~5–10% carbohydrate”. Notice there’s no mention of magnesium, calcium, vitamins, or any other nutrient.

Thus, salt, sugar, potassium, and water are all you need in a sports drink . Drink up! 


Need help knowing how much fluid and electrolytes you need while you train?