As an athlete, sports nutrition and hydration can get incredibly confusing. Are you supposed to be drinking plain water, or sipping a sports drink, or chugging a protein shake? Do you really need electrolytes…and if so, which electrolytes matter most? Unfortunately, the answers to sports nutrition questions tend to be nuanced, and change depending on the style and duration of your practice or game, as well as factors like temperature.
Here, TrueSport Expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, is explaining exactly when sports drinks are the best choice during practices and competitions—and when they aren’t as helpful.
First, a word on sports drinks in general: When we talk about sports drinks, we’re not talking about caffeine-containing energy drinks, which aren’t healthy for athletes. Sports drinks have carbohydrates and critical electrolytes, including sodium and potassium. If you prefer a homemade approach to sports drinks, check out our simple recipe here.
So, when should you be sipping a sports drink rather than water?
While you don’t need a sports drink before every practice or game, if you haven’t eaten in a few hours, a few sips of sports drink can help provide the fuel and hydration you need to show up at practice with full energy. “A sports drink is ideal when you need something that will sit light in your stomach while providing quick digesting carbohydrates along with hydration,” says Ziesmer. For students who have early lunch times at school and don’t have the ability to eat an afternoon snack, a sports drink can be incredibly useful.
2. Hard efforts
If your practice or game day includes a lot of hard efforts, sipping on sports drinks throughout will help keep your energy levels steady while also keeping you hydrated. That means sipping a sports drink between sprints, intervals, or breaks in any game like soccer that involves explosive movements. You don’t need to chug an entire bottle of sports drink all at once, though, says Ziesmer. A few sips at a time will be plenty, and drinking too much, too fast can result in an unpleasant sloshing sensation during your next interval.
3. Long efforts
For long efforts, like a cross-country practice that runs over 45 minutes, sipping a sports drink throughout will help maintain proper electrolyte balance, which will help you potentially avoid things like cramping in addition to fatigue and loss of coordination that come from mild dehydration. The carbohydrate in sports drinks also helps refill your glycogen stores, which rapidly deplete during these longer, more sustained efforts. Again, you don’t want to chug 16 ounces of sports drink in a single drink break: Slow and steady sipping will be more helpful throughout practice.