Think you need a sports drink to rehydrate after working up a sweat? HFG experts investigate what’s in sports drinks to find out if you really need them.
Drinking plenty of fluid is important for good health, and it’s essential especially if you exercise regularly, to prevent dehydration and get the most out of your workout session.
Sports drinks were originally designed for athletes who train often for long sessions at high-intensity. As they also tend to sweat a lot this means they lose not only fluid but also essential electrolytes (like sodium and potassium) and fuel (ie. carbohydrates) for the working muscles to use. These drinks were formulated as a way of rapidly replacing these vital fluids and fuel to avoid ‘hitting the wall’. Sports drinks have been shown to delay fatigue and improve exercise performance in numerous scientific trials. The problem is they’re high in energy as they’re loaded with sugar, which is a useful energy boost if you’re doing a punishing workout, but often not necessary if you’re just quenching a thirst.
What’s in them?
Sports drinks such as Powerade, Gatorade and Staminade all contain water, carbohydrates and electrolytes. Some varieties may also have other ingredients such as vitamins, minerals and certain amino acids, but there’s little evidence that these extra additives will further enhance exercise performance.
The purpose of carbohydrates in sports drinks is to provide energy for the working muscles, which helps delay fatigue. The main carbohydrates used in sports drinks are different types of sugar (such as maltodextrin, fructose, sucrose and glucose) in the right balance to promote fast absorption from the gut. This speeds hydration so you get the benefits, fast. There’s usually 4–8g total carbohydrate per 100ml of sports drink.
Sodium, potassium and chloride are the three electrolytes commonly added to sports drinks to help replace those lost in sweat. They also increase the amount of water taken up by the body, helping with rehydration.
Do I need to drink them?
With anywhere between 600 and 1100kJ and 10 to 14 teaspoons of sugar in a bottle, it’s very important to only use sports drinks if and when you really need them. If you’re going to the gym a couple of times a week, exercising at a moderate intensity, doing a few spin classes or short runs, and especially if you are trying to lose weight, sports drinks really aren’t for you. Water is what you should choose instead. If you’re drinking sports drinks, you could end up drinking more kilojoules than you have burnt that session.
It’s important to keep fluids up when exercising, particularly when temperatures are high and you are sweating a lot. Even a small amount of dehydration can hurt your exercise performance. In severe cases, dehydration can even lead to heat-related illness. The amount of fluid you need to drink during exercise varies as we all sweat at different rates. Exercising in the heat, for a long time, or at a high intensity, will cause you to sweat more and hasten dehydration. All of these factors need to be taken into account when you are figuring out how much you need to drink. For most people who exercise for less than an hour a few times a week, there is no reason to drink too much. Drinking water when you are thirsty during your session and throughout the day to top up your hydration levels is the best way to go. If you’re worried, visit sportsdietitians.com.au to find a sports dietitian near you, who can help determine if you need something more.
What’s in your sports drink?
POWERADE Per 600ml bottle
GATORADE Per 600ml bottle
STAMINADE Per 600ml bottle
Fat, total (g)
Fat, sat (g)
Sugars (g) - Sucrose - Maltodextrin - Glucose
36.0 9.6 0
6.0 1.6 0
33.0 0 3.0
5.5 0 0.5
34.8 N/A 0
5.8 n/a 0
Dietary fibre (g)
What about energy drinks?
An energy drink is not a sports drink. It is a soft drink with extra caffeine. Soft drinks and energy drinks (such as V, Red Bull, Monster and Lucozade Energy) do not help to rapidly rehydrate like sports drinks as they are too high in sugar (more than 8g per 100ml), so they are generally not recommended as a drink during exercise.
What about coconut water?
Even though there has been a lot of talk about coconut water’s amazing hydration abilities, it is not a substitute for a sports drink during high intensity or endurance events. While it does contain a good amount of carbohydrate for rapid absorption, it only has a small amount of sodium, so won’t replace the salt lost during sweating. Coconut water would be best suited for use as a lower kilojoule alternative to the occasional soft drink.
What should I drink, when?
Examples: Walking to work, walking the dog, a leisurely bike ride or relaxed swim. What do you need? Water only.
Examples: Brisk walking, jogging, recreational cycling or a moderate swim. What do you need? Water in most cases will be fine.
Examples: Fast-paced running, cycling or swimming, high-intensity gym class or spin classes, etc. What do you need? If this is under an hour, water is usually enough but in some cases a sports drink can be helpful. When training for over an hour, a sports drink would be beneficial.