Sports drinks: The inside story!

Good hydration is essential for optimum performance during any sport or physical activity. Fitness enthusiasts everywhere are starting to replace water with sports drinks in pursuit of the optimum hydration. With these drinks promising added benefits, people are asking, what’s it all about?

Sports drinks are generally categorised into three distinct varieties: Isotonic, Hypertonic and Hypotonic. Brands such as Lucozade and Powerade use these words as marketing instruments, but what do they really mean? Tonicity refers to the concentration of the solution as compared to that of the human body. Iso means equal to, hyper means greater than and hypo less than. This is important, as it tells us how much carbohydrate/energy can be delivered or absorbed into the body, in order to replace fluids you have lost.

These drinks contain different amounts of carbohydrates (principally sugars) and electrolytes (salts). The drinks are beneficial for different types of exercise. They can enhance performance, endurance and recovery when consumed before, during or after exercise.

The carbohydrate in the drinks helps replace the body’s energy stores, muscle glycogen, the primary fuel source during exercise. Sodium is the main electrolyte lost when you sweat. When too much sodium is lost through sweating, the body’s electrolytes become unbalanced and it is important to replace them.

Hypotonic drinks contain the least carbohydrate and sodium out of the three. They are effective at transporting water back into your cells, as the concentration of electrolytes is less than that in your body. The water from the drinks moves via osmosis into your cells, hydrating you. Hypotonic drinks (such as Lucozades’ zero calories) have been found to be most effective when hydrating before exercise or during light-moderate exercise that lasts up to an hour.

Isotonic drinks are of similar concentration to human blood (285- 295 Osm/kg). They tend to be composed of around 6-8% carbohydrate and contain electrolytes. They are the most common type of sports drink found on supermarket shelves and tackle the two biggest causes of fatigue during exercise: dehydration and lack of energy. Studies have shown that they prove most effective during moderate-intense exercise lasting longer than 60minutes or for intense bursts of exercise lasting no longer than 30minutes.

The nutritional information of sports drinks from iconic brands. The photos below show a hypotonic, hypertonic and isotonic drink, in that order.

Hypertonic drinks contain the greatest concentration of carbohydrates. They very rarely contain electrolytes, examples include Lucozade’s ‘energy’ range. They are often referred to as energy drinks, as they aim to replenish energy used by the body and should be used post exercise. The main purpose of these drinks is not hydration, but recuperation after strenuous activity. The high concentration of carbohydrates results in a slower absorption rate of the fluid. Athletes that burn large amounts of energy for a sustained period, such as ultra marathon runners, often utilise hypertonic drinks.

Next time you reach for a sport’s drink, do your body a favour – choose wisely!

Written by Charlie Farmer

Comments ( 7 )
  • Will Norris says:

    Brilliant article. I’m a big fan of Tenzing, an energy drink looking to disrupt the energy drinks market by offering a healthier alternative to the current market. Would love to read a second article discussing the health affects of highly caffeinated drinks, such as Tenzing and Redbull. Thanks!

  • Matty B says:

    Really interesting read, well written. Always wanted to know more about tonics

  • George D says:

    Great article! As a lifelong user of energy drinks whilst playing a number of sports, it’s great to finally read a relevant article explaining the differences between the jargon. Looking forward to more from you!

  • Jenya Darby says:

    Nicely structured, well written article that is easily understood by everyone. Sports drinks have come into play in recent years, which is why it is important to know which one to use/pick. Very interesting article

  • Tamra Gibson says:

    I hate to admit it but apparently I never really did my research on energy drinks. I fell into the habit if just getting what the others drank and tasted good. Ty so much

  • Melissa D says:

    Great information! You cleared up a lot of misconceptions for me– thanks!

  • Harry Lovell says:

    Very interesting read, will make me think before choosing these in the future.

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