When used as intended — to replenish after true physical exertion — sports drinks are, indeed, healthy, according to experts.
Cynthia Sass, RD, a sports nutritionist based in New York and L.A., says sports drinks can even be life-saving. “Drinking plain water, which doesn’t contain adequate amounts of electrolytes, after heavily sweating can dilute the concentration of electrolytes in the blood, which is dangerous, and even potentially deadly,” says Sass.
Before you start chugging, keep the “true exertion” aspect of things in mind — that’s working out for an hour or more.
Heather Mangieri, MS, RDN, the author of “Fueling Young Athletes” agrees. “As athletes perspire, they lose electrolytes and fluid,” says Mangieri. “Water alone may replace the fluid, but it will not replace the sodium or other electrolytes.”
Still, if you don’t need a sports drink, Sass advises, don’t drink one. “In other words, a sports drink isn’t a healthy beverage to pair with lunch or a snack.”
How can you tell which sports drinks are the real deal and not just sweetened water? Ideally, an 8-ounce serving will contain around 100 milligrams sodium, 30 milligrams potassium and 15 grams carbohydrates, Sass says. She recommends products without artificial colors, flavors or sweeteners. “Many athletes have told me that they react poorly to artificial ingredients, with digestive upset, headaches and more.”
If you make your own, Sass counsels, make sure your version features the “right balance of fluid, carbohydrates, and electrolytes…a mixture that’s out of balance, or made without the proper ingredients, could lead to cramps or digestive upset, or fail to properly replenish electrolytes.”
Stepfanie Romine, an ACE-certified health coach, runner and co-author of “The No Meat Athlete Cookbook,” gives props to Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration Mixes (especially the citrus and pineapple varieties) and the lemon-lime CLIF Hydration Electrolyte Drink Mix. Her personal favorite, though, is homemade switchel, which she describes as a “humble mix of apple cider vinegar, maple syrup, salt and water, with ginger for flavor and optional fruit juice for quick carbs.”
“Making your own is affordable and allows you to customize your fuel based on your individual needs,” she says. “It only takes a few minutes of prep work, and a batch can last all week. For example, our base recipe for switchel [below] uses just two tablespoons of maple syrup, so it has about half the sugar of a traditional sports drink.”
READ MORE > SWITCHEL: THE ORIGINAL SPORTS DRINK
So, if you’ve worked out hard, drink up! Just remember to reach for sports drinks, rather than energy drinks. The latter, Mangieri explains, “often contain an 8–11% carbohydrate solution and stimulants, such as caffeine, guarana, ginseng or other herbs.”