Not too long ago, sports drinks were tucked away in the “New Age Beverages” aisle at the grocery store and marketed mostly to serious endurance athletes. Today, however, they’re everywhere. There are sports drinks with electrolytes marketed for everything from a leisurely morning walk to a ten-hour Ironman triathlon. When do you really need a sports drink, and when can you get by without one?
According to a scientific review article published in 2011 by Louise Burke and other researchers at the Australian Institute of Sport, whether or not you need sports drinks with electrolytes depends on the duration and intensity of the exercise. For exercise sessions or competitions that are shorter than 45 minutes, there’s no benefit from using a sports drink, no matter how hard you’re working out.
If you’ll be exercising for 45 to 75 minutes at a high intensity, Burke and colleagues recommend drinking small amounts of a sports drink as needed. The absolute amount consumed is not so important; the performance benefit has more to do with your body sensing the presence of sugar than it does with sugar actually being put to use during exercise. In fact, some research shows that you don’t even need to swallow the sports drink to get the benefits! A 2004 study published by researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK demonstrated that cyclists who rinsed a sports drink in their mouth and spat it out improved their power output by almost three percent over a one-hour time trial compared to cyclists who rinsed their mouth with water.
In longer-duration exercise, it’s a different story. When you’re out working hard for over 75 minutes, you need to be consuming 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour for peak performance. This means 17 to 34 fluid ounces of a typical sports drink like Gatorade or Powerade every hour. Even if you’re playing a sport that involves a lot of start-and-stop action, like soccer or ultimate frisbee, this guideline still applies! Lower-intensity exercise, like going for a hike or playing a round of golf, doesn’t require sports drinks, however.
Now, keep in mind that the phrase “sports drink” refers in this context specifically to flavored drinks with sugar and electrolytes. There’s a veritable cornucopia of other beverages marketed as sports drinks that are artificially sweetened, and thus contain little or no sugar, or are designed to be electrolyte drinks with mild flavoring. These can be a useful substitute for water if you prefer the taste, but they won’t give you the performance benefits of a sports drink that contains sugar. Sugar-free or low calorie sports drinks are best reserved for long, low to moderate-intensity exercise.
Finally, you should consider your actual goals during exercise. Physiologists conduct their research under the assumption that you’re striving for peak performance. If you’re an elite athlete, that’s fine, but for regular folks, this isn’t always the case. When you’re out for a two-hour bike ride with your family, it might be optimal from a performance standpoint to bring along a sports drink, but you don’t need one. On the other hand, in a multi-hour tennis tournament or group ride with a cycling club, you should definitely bring along a sports drink and use it often.
If you want to give your best effort, sports drinks are best used as needed to quench thirst when you’re exercising at a high intensity for 45-75 minutes, and consumed more ardently when the duration of your workout stretches beyond that time limit—strive for 17-34 fluid ounces of sports drink every sixty minutes when you’re in the midst of a long, multi-hour competition or workout. For shorter bouts, you don’t need to worry about sports drinks at all!