Today, pretty much everyone knows the benefits of staying well-hydrated when working out, but when the first sports drink came on the scene in 1965, it was a literal game-changer. Researchers at the University of Florida developed Gatorade and tested it on members of the football team with winning results.
Since then, the bestselling brand has become a staple among athletes and anyone who’s active, and has spawned dozens of new electrolyte-laden iterations.
It has plenty of competition: Sports drinks are a multibillion dollar industry, according to research from Future Market Insights. Their popularity shows no signs of slowing down, especially among young adults, with some research suggesting that roughly 31 percent of Americans ages 20 to 34 regularly consume sports drinks.
Whether this is a good — or even necessary — thing, however, is up for debate. The first sports drinks were, after all, created for athletes, who tend to have different hydration needs than noncompetitors (and who, at the time Gatorade was invented, were actively discouraged from drinking anything, even water, out of a misplaced fear that it would cause nausea and cramps).
Many commercial sports drinks claim to provide a quick source of vitamins, minerals, and those all-important electrolytes, but they can also be a source of added sugar and artificial colors. So, are sports drinks really good for you, or just good marketing? Discover how they work and when, if ever, it may make sense to choose them over water and other beverages.
What Exactly Are Sports Drinks?
Sports drinks are a type of functional beverage intended to replenish certain nutrients that are typically lost during exercise. They’re not the same as energy drinks, which contain caffeine and stimulants to boost energy levels.
While the specific nutrition facts and ingredients in sports drinks vary per product, their first ingredient is usually water, and they contain vitamins and minerals, particularly electrolytes (which is why they’re sometimes called electrolyte drinks). You lose electrolytes — minerals including sodium, calcium, and potassium that help cells maintain fluid balance — when you sweat, reports Cleveland Clinic. In this way, sports drinks often claim to be superior to water, which may have traces of these minerals but not as much as what you’ll find in sports drinks.
Interestingly, one small study published in May 2021 in Frontiers in Nutrition found that runners ran faster when they rinsed their mouths with a colored solution compared with a clear one, but additional research is needed to determine whether the color of a sports drink has any significant effect on athletic performance.
How Sports Drinks Work
“Sports drinks are engineered to provide optimal hydration and quickly accessible energy during exercise,” explains Lexi Moriarty, RD, CSSD, the New Jersey–based owner of Expert Nutrition and Wellness. “They usually include a combination of fluid, electrolytes, and carbohydrates.”
Research has documented that when you sweat, you lose not only water, but electrolytes as well. Sports drinks are designed to replace both. Another paper notes there is some evidence that they may help fuel a workout, usually with some kind of simple carbohydrate (like sugar), which may give them an edge when it comes to athletic performance and recovery.
While nutrition experts generally advise limiting sugar-sweetened beverages in your diet, athletes who train long and hard enough to deplete their natural energy stores may benefit from replenishing them through sports drinks. “Sugar and carbohydrates play a critical role in supporting optimal performance for athletes,” says Jenny Westerkamp, RD, CSSD, Chicago-based owner of All Access Dietitians.
Still, not every workout is going to be that rigorous — in fact, there is no conclusive proof that exercise causes enough electrolyte loss to affect the hydration levels of the average person. And when it comes to basic hydration, sports drinks don’t offer any advantages over plain water, studies show.
Innovations in Sports Drinks
Sports drinks have come a long way since their inception, and brands are constantly innovating to keep up with consumer trends and demands. One such innovation is the addition of protein — the trendiest macronutrient. Gatorade’s G Zero with Protein leads the pack with a formula that’s free of sugar and contains 10 grams of whey protein while maintaining its electrolyte content.
In line with combining sports drinks with protein shakes, dairy-based sports drinks are a new-to-market option. GoodSport, a line of dairy-based sports drinks, hit shelves as the first sports drink piggybacking off the popularity of chocolate milk as a post-workout beverage. Milk has been shown to increase fluid balances better than plain water, according to one study published in March 2016 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “Chocolate milk is a great recovery drink because it includes an ideal ratio of carbohydrates to protein (3–4:1) for proper recovery and has added sugar, in comparison to regular milk, which helps replenish glycogen stores more efficiently than other sources of carbohydrate,” Moriarty explains. “As much as this can be a great option, dairy doesn’t always sit well for some after a hard workout.”
Brands are also ditching sugar in response to consumer awareness surrounding added sugars in sports drinks. Both Gatorade and Propel offer low- or zero-sugar sports drinks that use no-calorie sweeteners like sucralose in lieu of added sugars. Gatorade Fit, which according to Beverage Digest launched in early 2022, opts for stevia in its formula. It’s also free of artificial dyes or flavors.
When Sports Drinks Come in Handy
Whether you should reach for a sports drink over another type of beverage depends on the length and intensity of your workout. An intense workout lasting an hour or longer is sure to have you dripping in sweat, making it a good time to replenish your electrolytes, research shows. This explains why you’re likely to see professional athletes sipping these drinks during training sessions and sporting events.
But does the average person need sports drinks? Not necessarily, but under the right circumstances, they can be appropriate, Westerkamp says. “Sports drinks can be used by anyone whose energy, fluid, and electrolyte needs may be increased,” she says, such as following high-intensity exercise lasting for at least 45 minutes, or even when you’ve had fluid losses due to a stomach bug.
Sports drinks can also be a good choice for heavy sweaters, Moriarty says. Sweating in any capacity can lead to electrolyte imbalances, and sports drinks can help with replenishing and preventing dehydration.
Who Should Avoid Sports Drinks?
If you aren’t exercising or sweating heavily, there’s no major reason to choose a sports drink over water or other beverages. “Sports drinks typically aren’t necessary unless you’re working out for longer than 45 to 60 minutes or sweating intensely,” Moriarty says. “With a lower intensity workout, the amount of sugar in a typical sports drink may not be necessary.” Popular sports drinks can contain as much as 21 grams of sugar in a 12-ounce serving, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Ingredients like artificial sweeteners and dyes are also a concern. “Sports drinks are great for hydration and performance, but can provide extra calories, sugar, and very little other nutritional value when not consumed during or around exercise,” explains Moriarty.
Research also provides evidence that sports drinks are unnecessary for children and may contribute to childhood obesity. For that reason, sports drinks are generally considered unnecessary for children engaged in routine or play-based physical activity.
The Bottom Line
While sports drinks are hydrating, they shouldn’t be used to replace water as your primary source of fluid. People who participate in prolonged, high-intensity exercise may benefit from sports drinks, but for most people, drinking water before, during, and after exercise is sufficient to rehydrate.