Up Close & Edible: Sports Drinks

When are sports drinks crucial?

Working out in the summer means that fluids are necessary to beat the heat. Whether you should reach for the water or the Gatorade depends on you and your workout.

These supercharged drinks can be useful—sometimes essential—for athletes going the extra distance in the August heat, when a lap around the track can feel like a marathon. But is a gallon of Gatorade necessary for a 20-minute jaunt on the elliptical?

"Sports drinks can be a secret weapon if used correctly," says Suzanne Girard Eberle, a board-certified sports dietitian and author of "Endurance Sports Nutrition." They pull triple duty for athletes by providing fluids, carbohydrates and electrolytes, all of which are necessary for athletes. Fluids are especially important in the summer, when exercising in hot weather means more sweating.

Another key component is electrolytes, minerals that assist with muscle contraction and relaxation. Sodium is one of the best electrolytes because it wards off painful cramps and stimulates the thirst mechanism, upping the drive to drink. For athletes on a long run or bike ride, replacing the electrolytes that are lost through sweating is critical.

"Many people hydrate or replace fluids that they're losing with water, and then they dilute the level of electrolytes," says Lisa Dorfman, an American Dietetic Association spokesperson. "When you're exercising in the summer heat and sweating, you need to replace both fluids and electrolytes. Whether that's from a power bar, Gatorade or any sports drink, you definitely need it."

Whether a simple bottle of water can meet your needs instead of a more expensive and caloric sports drink depends on the individual and the intensity of the workout. For the heavy sweater losing a lot of liquid and sodium during a long workout, sports drinks are close to a necessity. Girard Eberle suggests that those on the move for an hour or more down at least two to eight gulps of a sports drink every 15 minutes. One of the biggest mistakes, she says, is waiting until the end of the workout to hydrate.

"You need to start drinking early and often," she says. "If you do, that's what extends your endurance so you don't dig yourself into a hole."

For the person hopping on the treadmill for a short workout and barely breaking a sweat, water may do the trick. New low-calorie sports drinks, such as Propel by Gatorade and Powerade's Option, offer the electrolytes without the additional calories that casual exercisers typically do not need.

"The low-calorie [drinks] are tasty, so they encourage people to consume fluids," says Dorfman. "A lot of people don't like the taste of water, so it's great to have a beverage that has some flavor to it."

She also points out that even for the moderate exerciser, drinking a standard sports drink, the calorie intake is pretty low compared to other beverage options. The average sports drink has 14 grams of sugar per eight-ounce serving—that's half the grams of sugar in orange juice and one quarter those in a typical soda.

"Sometimes I think that exercisers or fitness-minded people have juice before running or something all natural and think it's better," says Dorfman. "They wouldn't dare touch a sports drink but it might benefit them a bit more."

Those benefits also come from keeping a variety of flavors available. Girard Eberle explains that flavor fatigue can often occur; when consuming a favorite drink throughout a long workout, it can often begin to turn off your stomach. "Even if strawberry passion fruit is your favorite, it won't be your favorite by the end of a six-hour bike ride or a marathon," says Girard Eberle. "You have to mentally prepare for that." She recommends keeping a few flavors on hand for longer workouts.