Sports drinks contain electrolytes (mostly potassium and sodium) and sugars to replenish what the body has lost through sweating that water alone can’t replace. The purpose of these beverages is to bring the levels of minerals in your blood closer to their normal levels, so you can continue your workout as if you just started.

Sounds great, right? But don’t go reaching for the nearest bottle just yet. Not all sports drinks are created equal, and not every sports drink works the same for every athlete. Most nutritionists agree that sports drinks only become beneficial once your workout extends past 60 minutes.

Drinking Water Still Essential

But that doesn’t mean that drinking water ceases to be essential. “Even if [one] consumes a sports drink,” Dr. Haemi Choi, a nutrition specialist at Loyola University in Chicago says, “it’s important that he or she continues to drink water.” And guzzling unnecessary sports drinks can give you added calories, sugars, and toxins from artificial flavorings. Reading the label carefully is the best way to avoid any hidden extras lurking in your beverage.

The granddaddy of sports drinks is Gatorade, a beverage created in the 1960s for the University of Florida Gators football team. The British Medical Journal says it “started life as a simple mixture of kitchen foodstuffs” like water, salt, sugar, and lemon flavoring. It’s more complicated than that today. The industry is now dominated by multinational companies like Pepsi and drug companies like GSK. In the United States alone, sales of sports drinks exceed $1.5 billion a year.

Before the rise of sports drinks, athletes (and the rest of us) drank water when we exercised or got sweaty. How did we know when to drink, or how much? The way humans have known for eons—thirst. But as the BMJ team describes, sports drink makers spent a lot of money sponsoring less-than-rigorous research damning thirst as a guide to hydration and casting doubt on water as the beverage for staying hydrated. To make matters worse, recommendations once aimed at endurance athletes have now trickled down to anyone who exercises.

Trust thirst, drink water

Dr. Francis Wang, the team physician for Harvard athletics, tells athletes about thirst and fluids. “For most players, thirst is a good guide for hydration,” he said. Athletes who have had muscle cramps may need to drink extra, and may need more electrolytes.

What about the rest of us, who may run a couple miles in the morning or play a few sets of tennis? Thirst should be our guide, and water our beverage.

One concern with sports drinks is that they deliver unneeded calories. Some contain 150 calories, , the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar.

Children definitely don’t need sports drinks, says Dr. Claire McCarthy, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. As for adults, Tim Noakes, professor of exercise and sports science at University of Cape Town in South Africa told the BMJ, far from turning casual runners into Olympic athletes, “If they avoided the sports drinks they would get thinner and run faster.”

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