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When are sports drinks beneficial?

Sports drinks can play a role in aiding hydration for endurance athletes. However, with less than 50 percent of Americans achieving the recommended minimum 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity such as brisk walking, weekly, the average Joe and Josephine on-the-street isn’t partaking in a routine, intense training program that would likely cause dehydration.

Also, according to the advice in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Sports Nutrition manual, individuals exercising less than 45 minutes, don’t need to drink sports drinks in place of water during their workout. Drinking water and consuming a well-balanced diet should be enough to meet your fluid and nutrient needs.
Young Woman Drinking from Bottle
Sports drinks can provide a convenient way to replace water and electrolytes like sodium and potassium, which are lost when sweating. However, they are not required. Consuming water and eating a meal will provide the same water and nutrients that are lost during activity.

This answer provided for NATA by the Marist College Athletic Training Education Program.

Generally, sports drinks are beneficial for those individuals who exercise for longer than 60 minutes (endurance events) and for those who perform activities at higher temperatures (in the heat). Sports drinks contain ingredients other than water, such as sodium (an electrolyte). Sports drinks can help to maintain a balance between the amounts of sodium consumed and sodium that is lost. Exercising for longer periods as well as performing activities in environments with higher temperatures (indoor or outdoor) typically means that you are generating more sweat and that your body is releasing higher amounts of both water and sodium. Because the body is sensitive to changes in sodium, this can negatively affect health. Take special precautions by becoming more aware of your bodily functions. Before exercise, assess your level of hydration by paying attention to urine frequency (how often), volume (how much), and color (aim for a lighter color). Know what is normal for you. If performing physical activity for less than 60 minutes and/or at cooler temperatures, then consuming water is usually enough to stay hydrated. 

Sports drinks serve as a very beneficial recovery tool following high intensity workouts or activities. These drinks contain necessary electrolytes and water lost through sweat, and the sugars work to replace depleted glycogen stores. Some research also shows that consuming a sports drink that contains a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio may improve performance and speed up recovery when compared to the traditional carbohydrate-only sports drinks. However, for low intensity activities and workouts of short duration, water will simply provide you with the proper hydration.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Sports drinks may have some of the coolest commercials, but they're only necessary if you exercise for more than 60 minutes. They re-hydrate your body faster than water after long periods of exercise because they help you recover muscle power sooner than water (because they contain electrolytes that hasten the absorption of water). But if you drink them regularly or after short workouts, you'll end up consuming more calories that won't get burned off.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.