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Are Sports Drinks the Best Option When Thirsty?

Proper hydration is one of the most fundamental components in sports nutrition plans and indeed reaching optimal performance, so what you consume to re-hydrate is vital. In a world where we are bombarded by constant advertisement, the “Sports Drink” is one such product which is presented to us on a regular basis. So do you need to drink these products or are they a waste of time and your money?

The Consequences of Dehydration

Ultimately water is necessary to keep your body hydrated as over 60% of the body is made up of water. Dehydration leads to a lack of mental performance and also contributes to trouble in regulating the temperature of your body and extreme dehydration leads to more serious consequences. If you feel thirsty then you are already dehydrated, so it is important to be aware of this before and after exercise or physical activity which might induce thirst.  It is a good idea to introduce a hydration plan in whatever activity you may be partaking in. For many athletes, a sports drink is seen as the convenient option by which to stay hydrated and also to take some carbohydrates on board as well.

What is a sports drink?

As there are so many drinks which might claim to be “sports drinks” on the market it important to understand what a sports drink is. Many drinks claim to enhance performance through their advertising but a sports drink should be formulated to contain between 4-8% carbohydrate and also 500 – 700mg/L of Sodium. Carbohydrates are included as they help to replace any carbohydrate which are lost during physical activity. Short supply of carbohydrate leads to fatigue and this of course has a negative impact on your performance. Carbohydrates also act as a source of fuel to the brain, so if the levels drop the brain can be left short of vital fuel also. The brain cannot rely on any backup on a back up store of fuel so then the mind begins to tire as well. So as you can imagine this will lead to a drop in concentration, so in any sport as the match or game reaches later stages, we are more likely to see mistakes from athletes. So if you are playing a sport or engaging in a physical activity which requires complete mental concentration such as Rugby or Golf, a lack of carbohydrates is a very bad thing. This leads to poorer decision making, decreased focus and a big drop in reaction times.  So this is perhaps an area where a proper sports drink will be a better choice than good old water (which does not contain carbohydrates).


Sports drinks will contain sodium too, for a number of reasons. Sodium is lost while we sweat so it has to be replaced. This also leads to driving your thirst mechanism on and leads you drink  more and it aids the body’s cells to retain water. This helps to keep you hydrated and also can help in reducing the need to use the bathroom less (as your body is keeping more fluid). In terms of  benefits to the digestive system, the absorption of glucose in the small intestine is also helped by the consumption of drinks with sodium. The more efficiently the body can absorbed glucose, the easier it is to retain energy.   

So if drinks fall outside of the bracket of 4-8% carbohydrate and correct level of sodium are not sports drink. So it is best to stay away from these drinks. Energy drinks also should be avoided as the may contain stimulants such as Taurine and Cafeine which may dehydrate you even further and may be loaded with calories, which could mean that you are consuming high calories after your workout or run. If you are not sure, read the nutritional information provided on the bottle or can.

Some sports drinks and energy drinks may not sit well with your digestive system so once you do find a sports drink that works for you, stick with it.

When Do you Need a Sports Drink?

Usually for activity or sports under one hour a sports drink is not required but after an hour they can be useful. Some sports that last longer than an hour or in tournament situations may require you to consume energy in the form of carbohydrates. In situations where it is not possible to snack, sports drink play a valuable role in providing you with carbohydrates, sodium and electrolytes.


Proper sports drinks add value to athletes who are partaking in sports which last for over an hour but should be selected with caution. The criteria listed above should be contained in the drink to ensure the drink is worth buying and consuming. Choose a drink that you like the flavour of and always have a hydration plan in place so you can avoid the effects of dehydration.

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