Sports Drinks: Fuel for Athletes

No matter what sort of nutrition advice you offer your patients, it’s important to first inquire about their diet and lifestyle. A healthy diet is balanced with physical activity, and includes the basics of choosing lots of vegetables, fruit, quality protein, whole grains, and healthy fats, while limiting sodium, sugar and alcohol. However when using these basic nutrition guidelines, you still have to consider your patient’s medical history, as well as their daily activity, diet history, culture, and food preferences.

There seems to be a continuous buzz in the media about the different types of sugars in sweetened beverages and sports drinks. You may have read a headline such as “Are sports drinks necessary?”, and wonder if you should be recommending them (or not) to your patients. Well, it depends. Is your patient an athlete? For both active adults and competitive athletes, it is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine that:

The performance of, and recovery from, sporting activities are enhanced by well-chosen nutrition strategies.

Many factors impact why a person chooses to eat what he or she eats, so there is never a one-size-fits-all meal plan to recommend. This is especially important when discussing diet and nutrition with your more active patients. In other words, the advice you provide about sugar and carbohydrates for an active adult concerned about athletic performance, is going to be very different from the advice you provide a weekend warrior that is moderately active but may have health concerns or a sedentary obese adult with metabolic syndrome.

Sports drinks can play a role in your active patient’s diet, however when making recommendations to children, be sure to review their typical meal patterns. Discourage use of sports drinks with meals, but instead recommend them as an important part of their sport nutrition program. Sports drinks can play an important role in performance, serving a purpose for athletes of all ages and skill levels.


Proper hydration is vital to performance when it comes to athletics. Regular adequate intake of water is indeed an excellent way to maintain a healthy hydration status, but during or after a training session or race, most athletes need more than just water. The sugar in sports drinks provides energy in the form of quick-acting carbohydrate. Without it, an athlete may experience early fatigue. Sports drinks also provide some electrolyte replacement which can help prevent muscle cramping in the athlete.

During Exercise:

  • Drink 4-8 ounces of water every 15-20 minutes
  • For activities lasting longer than one hour, drink a sports drink to replenish electrolytes and provide some energy
  • Endurance athletes in training should track their weight. Weigh in before and after exercise to determine fluid lost. For each pound lost, drink 16 ounces of water or sports drink to replenish.

Hydration has a huge impact on sports performance, and using a sports drink does increase performance, especially in high intensity or endurance sports.

Energy, Composition and Metabolism

Did you know that for most people, 45-65% of calories (energy) should come from carbohydrates? Athletes require this higher end, and sugar is a quick source of energy that serves a role in fueling athletes (it can even serve a role after a few hours of yard work in the hot sun).

Sugar, whether from sucrose, fructose, or high fructose corn syrup, is a quick acting source of energy in the form of carbohydrate. While the function or use of various types of sugar in food processing may vary, each provides the same amount of energy (4 calories per gram), and sugars like high fructose corn syrup, table sugar (sucrose) and honey, are all metabolized in the same way. So the blend of sugars in a sports drink really doesn’t matter much – it’s about quick energy, electrolytes and hydration.


High Fructose Corn Syrup


Sucrose HFCS Sucrose

Fructose has a lower glycemic index (GI), which can be appealing to athletes. Fructose is often combined with other sugars and ingredients – as in a granola bar for instance – to improve energy availability to an athlete. A lower GI can offer more sustained energy. In fact, fructose may help maintain liver glycogen (the storage form of energy) in endurance athletes.

When it comes to offering advice to patients about sports drinks, keep in mind that there is a place for them in the active person’s diet.


Rosanne RustRosanne Rust MS, RDN, LDN is a registered, licensed dietitian-nutritionist with over 25 years experience. As a Nutrition Communications Consultant she delivers clear messages helping you understand the science of nutrition so you can enjoy eating for better health. Rosanne is the co-author of several books, including DASH Diet For Dummies® and the The Glycemic Index Cookbook For Dummies®. A wife, and mother of 3 boys, she practices what she preaches, enjoying regular exercise, good food and festive entertaining. Follow her on Twitter @RustNutrition.