Sports Drink Myths Debunked

Sports drinks have been getting a lot of press lately, and not the good kind. There has been great debate regarding whether they should be removed from public schools due to their sugar content. Recently, Texas Rangers center fielder, Josh Hamilton, had to sit out five games due to blurred vision and balance issues—diagnosed as a consequence of too much caffeine and energy drinks. Combine these issues with endless options and you're likely to be confused regarding what sports drink is for good you.

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It is the position of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) that "adequate fluid replacement helps maintain hydration and, therefore, promotes the health, safety, and optimal physical performance of individuals participating in regular physical activity". A mere two percent loss of body weight via sweat can lead to a decline in performance. It's hard to believe that 20 years ago there was one option: Gatorade.

Today, due to the allure of innovative products, the everyday athlete is inundated with choices. In addition, the claims made about the effects of each product on performance can bring out the skeptic in anyone who has tried multiple products resulting in more of an impact on their wallet than on their PR.

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Lucky for you, scientists across the globe are evaluating these products on everything from GI issues to performance enhancement. For those who would rather spend their time training than scouring the literature, here is a handy overview of the different products marketed to endurance athletes:

1. Product: Electrolyte Sports Drink

What it is: A 4 to 8 percent solution of carbohydrate (4 to 8g of carbohydrate per 100ml/3.3 oz) and electrolytes.

What it claims: This carbohydrate concentration maximizes absorption and decreases transit time in the gut (subsequently decreasing bloating and GI distress). Electrolytes replace minerals lost in sweat.

Results show: If used repeatedly during endurance exercise (more than 60 minutes) electrolyte sports drinks aid in maintenance of blood sugar and provide fluids to support hydration. But, during exercise lasting less than 60 minutes, there is no evidence of physiological or performance differences between a carbohydrate-electrolyte drink and plain water. The electrolyte concentration is negligible compared to that in the blood.

Recommendation: Drink 600 to 1200 ml/hour (20 to 40oz). You may need to try a few products since the carbohydrate source is different across brands. Some individuals cannot tolerate fructose, while others cannot tolerate maltodextrin.

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2. Product: "SuperStarch" Beverage

What it is: Cornstarch treated with a heat-moisture process that alters the metabolism of the starch in the body. Originally developed to prevent hypoglycemia in individuals with glycogen storage disease.

What it claims: Optimal carbohydrate source due to fast absorption (low osmolality), "time-released" glucose profile, and low insulin impact. This prevents the spike and crash phenomenon and increases use of fat for energy during exercise and recovery.

Results show: Serum insulin was eight times less as compared to a maltodextrin-based drink. Glucose levels were more stable during prolonged exercise (120 minutes). Plus, there was an increased fat breakdown during exercise and recovery.

Recommendation: Athletes are instructed to take 1 to 2 servings before prolonged exercise. This product may be more appropriate for trained athletes who are accustomed to completing a 2- to 4-hour endurance event with little nutritional support. Athletes should be vigilant about water intake during the event.   

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