Many of us who love working out can appreciate the extra boost that healthy sports drinks and electrolyte beverages give us. The performance enhancing pre-workout powders that work the best always contain electrolytes, but not a bunch of added sugar.
Drinking healthy sports drinks is helpful because their ingredients give us more energy, more hydration, help us recover from our workouts more quickly, and generally improve the way we work out. Sports drinks are especially useful, as they contain important minerals (electrolytes) which are lost when we sweat. Sports drinks replenish what we lose when we sweat during a workout (often referred to as a means of body fluid regulation) and keep us hydrated.
There are many sports drinks out there, and not all of them are healthy sports drinks. A lot of them are beneficial for athletes, but unfortunately, some sports drinks can do more harm than good. Just like with anything else that you put into your body, it’s important to be aware of what you’re buying, look at the nutrition label, and look for quality ingredients without added sugar.
Knowing what to look for and what to avoid is crucial, especially when it comes to sports drinks, as there are so many to choose from. So, with that in mind, let’s review some of the most common ingredients found in sports drinks and take a closer look at which ones are healthy and which ones to avoid.
What Exactly Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are the minerals our bodies use to perform many key functions. Electrolytes are crucial to our functionality. The three most important electrolytes are sodium, potassium and chloride, but there are many others including magnesium, calcium, phosphate and bicarbonates.
Sodium is essential for maintaining fluid levels within the membrane that surrounds our cells, and potassium maintains normal fluid levels in our cells. Sodium and potassium also work in conjunction with each other to help our nerve cells pass messages from our nerves to our muscles and tissues. Ions of each mineral are exchanged through the walls of our cells’ membranes to generate an action potential, a tiny electrical impulse that is essentially how our cells talk to each other. In addition, both sodium and potassium are used for muscle contraction.
Chloride helps to stimulate the movement of fluid inside and outside of our cells, and it also helps maintain an appropriate balance of acids and bases in our bodies.
Electrolytes are continuously lost throughout the day and are replaced through the foods we eat and the drinks we drink. When we work out and sweat heavily, we lose significantly more electrolytes than we do during other daily activities. It’s therefore very important that we replenish our electrolytes in order to maintain proper hydration and wellness, and this is often achieved by drinking healthy sports drinks that contain electrolytes.
In fact, one of the main reasons why pre-workout beverages work to enhance performance, is because of the electrolytes pre-workout powders contain.
Sports drinks also help rehydrate you, and as you might know, some people have a genetically prone to lose more water than others. Your DNA test can tell you whether or not you have a higher risk of water loss, as well as hundreds of other health and fitness insights about how your DNA impacts your ability to work out. Note that when we are dehydrated and we haven’t replenished lost electrolytes, we can’t function properly. Vital communications in our bodies can’t take place and, in extreme cases, our bodies begin to shut down.
Even though drinking water is an important step, water alone doesn’t contain many electrolytes, so we need to get them from somewhere else. Drinking sports drinks is a good way to combat dehydration, but not all sports drinks are created equal, and it’s crucial to know which ones are healthy sports drinks.
Healthy Sports Drinks: What Ingredients Should You Look For?
It’s important to choose replenishing sports drinks that include a wide array of electrolytes. Aside from sodium, potassium and chloride, magnesium is another mineral you should look for. Women under the age of 30 need about 310 mg of magnesium per day while men should try and aim for 400 mg. After turning 31, women should up their dosage to 320 mg while men should get 420 mg of magnesium per day. You might not know that you have low levels of magnesium. However, magnesium is crucial for energy production and muscle and nerve function, so consuming a sports drink with magnesium will definitely benefit your workout.
B vitamins and calcium are two more ingredients you could look for in healthy sports drinks. Apart from keeping your teeth and bones strong and healthy, calcium aids in muscle contraction and promotes insulin sensitivity and B vitamins break down carbs and carry nutrients throughout your body, delivering them to important tissues like your muscles and brain.
Finally, water is one of the most important and most obvious ingredients in sports drinks. In fact, many of the healthy sports drinks out there are made by simply emptying a package of electrolyte powder into your water, and stirring it in.
Some health enthusiasts promote the idea that alkaline water is ideal, as the higher pH may be able to neutralize acids that are found in the bloodstream. However, more studies are needed to verify claims that alkaline water is better for you than plain water.
What Ingredients Should You Avoid in Sports Drinks?
Some of the ingredients found in sports drinks will help replenish the bodily fluids lost during a workout, but there are other ingredients found in many popular sports drinks that should be limited or avoided altogether.
For starters, many sports drinks contain a very high amount of electrolytes, especially too much sodium. We do need electrolytes, especially when we work out, but taking too many can be hard on your body and bad for your health. Hypernatremia and hyperkalemia (too much sodium and potassium, respectively) are serious conditions that can cause symptoms like dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, and impaired kidney function and can even lead to heart arrhythmia, or an irregular beating of the heart.
In addition, many sports drinks contain staggeringly high amounts of sugar or zero-calorie sweeteners, which, along with blood sugar spikes and crashes and eventual weight gain, may cause health problems of their own.
Finally, caffeine might give you the boost you need for your next workout, but consider how long the effects of caffeine take to wear off, especially if taken in the high doses that are often found in sports drinks. High amounts of caffeine can negatively affect your heart and blood pressure, and young people who consume sports and energy drinks are at risk of harming their cardiovascular and nervous systems.
Consuming Sports Drinks Safely
Should you avoid sports drinks altogether? Not at all. Many of them are genuinely healthy sports drinks that help you replenish lost body fluids during exercise, and help you perform better during exercise. (This is why many people drink them before, during and after a workout.)
However, it’s important to be mindful of the ingredients that are in your sports drink or electrolyte beverage of choice, and be selective about when you drink them.
The average person who is not very active does not need the high amounts of electrolytes that are found in most sports drinks. In many cases, water combined with drinks and foods that are naturally high in electrolytes, like coconut water and milk, is the better substitute. It’s true that many people substitute coconut water for sports drinks, since this healthy beverage does contain a fair amount of electrolytes, and is very hydrating.
Sports drinks are best saved for workouts that are particularly intense, long and grueling, or done in extreme heat (like hot yoga) where you’ll sweat a lot. Or, if you’re beginning your workout in an already pre-dehydrated state because you haven’t had much water or food that day.
Also, if you take a pre-workout or recovery supplement, consider what ingredients are in it before you pick up your sports drink. Some pre-workouts contain caffeine, so if you consume a sports drink with caffeine in addition to your pre-workout, you’re more at risk of those adverse side effects brought on by too much caffeine.
If you’re on the Keto diet or a low-carb diet, note that many sports drinks and pre-workouts contain a fair amount of carbs, but not all of them do – so check the nutrition label.
If you do decide that you need a sports drink, there are some minor changes you can make to your diet for the rest of the day, such as watering down your sports drink and avoiding foods with excess sodium as well as caffeinated drinks.
The Bottom Line
Sports drinks might be the right choice for you, but it’s important to always check in with a healthcare professional before making any changes to your diet and exercise program. Your doctor or your nutritionist, for example, can give you advice that’s best suited to you and your body.