Almost 50 years after the first sports drink, Gatorade®, was developed by researchers at the University of Florida, sports drinks are used at all levels of sport and fitness. This raises questions about the makeup of sports drinks and whether or not they are really necessary.

Sports Drinks: Do You Really Need One?

What is a sports drink?

Sports drinks are carbohydrate electrolyte solutions specifically formulated to replace energy, minerals and fluids lost during intense physical exercise. They claim to prevent dehydration and as a result optimize athletic performance.

What are the ingredients in a sports drink?

There are four main ingredients in sports drinks:

  • water
  • carbohydrate
  • electrolytes
  • flavouring


Most sports drinks are 90-96% water to provide fluid to replace sweat losses following intense exercise.


Research shows that consuming carbohydrate during prolonged activity can improve exercise performance. Carbohydrate is added to sports drinks to provide immediate energy for working muscles. Multiple types of carbohydrates in the form of sugars are used (glucose, sucrose, fructose, glucose polymers and maltodextrin) for quick absorption. Generally, sports drinks are designed to be 4-8% carbohydrate (40 to 80 grams of carbohydrate per litre) to mimic the gastric emptying and absorption rate of water. On the other hand, beverages like pop and juice, with higher concentrations of carbohydrate (11-15%), are believed to delay gastric emptying and take longer to be absorbed which may lead to stomach upset and impair performance.


Sodium is the main electrolyte lost in sweat. Therefore, it is also the main electrolyte added to sports drinks. Others include potassium, magnesium, chloride and calcium. Sports drinks contain 300 to 700 mg of sodium per litre and 80 to 200 mg of potassium.


Flavour is added to sports drinks to improve the taste which increases the amount of fluid consumed and leads to better hydration.

When is a sports drink necessary?

Generally, elite athletes benefit from sports drinks when their exercise routine is

  • very intense, or requires prolonged endurance
  • 60 minutes or longer
  • performed in hot and/or humid climates
  • done in protective sports equipment

What is unique about the new sports drink products?

Recently, new sports drink products have become available:

  • Pre-exercise drinks provide fuel for activity in the form of carbohydrate.
  • Post-exercise drinks contain protein for muscle recovery.

Athletes involved in high-level sports are the targets for these products. The whole hydration routine—pre-exercise, during and post-exercise—will contribute a significant number of calories. Unless those calories are burned during exercise or activity, they will lead to weight gain.

  • Low-calorie sports drinks provide fluid and electrolyte replacement with few or no calories.

These products contain little or no carbohydrate and are artificially sweetened. Low-calorie sports drinks claim to be “designed to provide hydration for athletes during lighter exercise or competition”. They may also be more suitable for hydration for the average active person who does not need the carbohydrate or calories of a regular sports drink but is looking for something more than water.

Table 1 shows the most common ready to drink sports drinks in Canada.

Table 1. Common Sports Drinks

Product (portion sold)CategoryCalories per portion soldCarbohydrate (g) portion soldSodium (mg) per portion soldPotassium (mg)per portion sold
Gatorade Prime ® (118 ml)pre-exercise1002511030
Gatorade Perform ® (710 ml)During exercise1804530080
Powerade ION4 ® (710 ml)During exercise150*41*300*75*
G2 Perform ™ (710 ml)Low calorie571432785
Powerade Zero ™ (710 ml)Low calorie0017099
Gatorade Recover ®(500 ml)Post-exercise1201423070

*averages based on several flavours

Is coconut water a sports drink?

Marketed as a healthier, more natural beverage than sports drinks, coconut water is the liquid from a young coconut. This is different from coconut milk which is the liquid that comes from the grated meat of the coconut. Pure 100% coconut water is fat free and low in calories and may be a good option for hydration. However, not all coconut water beverages are the same. Some are only 10% coconut water and very high in sugar.

Compared to sports drinks, coconut water is significantly lower in sodium and higher in potassium and does not provide energy in the form of carbohydrate. When a sports drink is required, coconut water is not a good substitute.

Is it all hype?

Sports drinks—do they really improve performance, or, is it all hype? A number of articles published recently in the British Medical Journal were highly critical of sports drinks and the “science of hydration” that has been used to market these products.

One article concluded that there was a “striking lack of evidence to support the vast majority of sports-related products that make claims to enhance performance or recovery.”

Another article attributes the rapid rise in consumption rates of sports drinks to the “coupling of science with creative marketing.”

The third article busts the top “six most common myths” made for sports and exercise products.

What is the bottom line? Sports drinks may or may not have a specific role to play for the elite level athlete—the evidence is weak. However, for the average active person, it is clear. Water is best for hydration, and food can provide all the energy and nutrients that are required.

Colinda Hunter

Registered Dietitian

Colinda (BPE, BSc HEc (Nutrition), RD) is a registered dietitian who shares her knowledge of food and the science of nutrition to promote optimal health and wellness. As a nutrition educator with Alberta Milk she develops nutrition education resources and programs for health educators.

Article posted on October 1, 2012

Active Tip

Over the past decade, approximately 90% of the Canadian working population have been steadily employed, yet only 3% of the population report exercising at work.

The Expert Says

Registered Dietitian Colinda Hunter says, “For the average active person, sports drinks are not necessary. Water is best for hydration, and food can provide all the energy and nutrients that are required for optimal performance.”