Open any fitness magazines, turn on the TV or peruse the internet for exercise advice and chances are you’ll see at least a few adverts for sports drinks. The images used to promote these products make it look as though if you buy this particular product you’ll soon be sporting a six-pack, looking lean and mean and conquering all your opponents in your chosen competitive activity. You’ll certainly be crushing it in the gym! Reading between the lines it would seem that sports drinks are actually integral to your success but is this really the case?
There are hundreds if not thousands of sports drinks for you to potentially choose from but in reality, there are three main types. They all share a common ingredient – sugar. This might be labeled as dextrose, glucose, fructose, xylitol or maltodextrin but the main reason any sports drink gives you energy is its sugar content. The amount of sugar in each type of sports drink is how it is characterized.
In addition to varying amounts of sugar, many sports drinks contain electrolytes—a group of minerals that your body loses when you perspire heavily—and also caffeine, known for its energy boosting properties. All of the drinks listed below can be caffeinated or caffeine-free or come with or without added electrolytes.
Hypotonic sports drinks contain relatively small amounts of sugar; 2-4 grams/0.07 – 0.14 ounces per 100ml/3.38 fluid ounces of water. This means that they are excellent for fluid replacement during a hot and sweaty workout but not so good for replacing lost energy. Subsequently they are quite well suited to workouts where fat burning is the primary aim as the small amount of sugar will not adversely affect the utilization of fat for fuel. Really, these drinks are little more than flavored water plus a few minerals to replace those lost when you sweat. Water, which is calorie free, will probably be just as good a choice if slightly more bland tasting.
Containing around 6-7 grams/0.21 – 0.25 ounces of sugar per 100ml/3.38 fluid ounces of water, isotonic drinks offer an combination of hydrating fluids and energy. This makes them especially useful during long workouts where you are as likely to run out of fuel as you are to become dehydrated—a 90 minute soccer game for example. However the moderate sugar content means that isotonic drinks would probably interfere with fat burning so if losing weight is your primary reason for exercising you should steer clear of isotonic drinks and stick to plain water.
Hypertonic drinks contain 10 grams/0.35 ounces or more per 100ml/3.38 fluid ounces of water which makes them very concentrated sources of sugar and energy. If you are running a marathon, climbing a mountain or performing any other long duration endurance activity, hypertonic drinks provide an easy way to keep your energy levels topped up without having to consume “real” food which can place a stress on your digestive system and may lead to abdominal discomfort. However, such a concentrated source of sugar can actually interfere with fluid absorption so if you want hydration and fuel, you may actually be better off with an isotonic drink or by consuming plenty of plain water along with your hypertonic drink.
Hypertonic drinks are also a viable way to rapidly replace energy on completion of a long endurance training session or event and are also used by athletes looking to carb up (increase muscle and liver glycogen stores) prior to endurance events and even bodybuilding competitions where the former will prevent premature fatigue and the latter will lead to increased muscle fullness.
Needless to say, hypertonic drinks will definitely interfere with fat burning so avoid this type of drink if your goal is weight loss. Examples of hypertonic drinks include most regular sodas, fruit juice and “carb” drinks.
In addition to the aforementioned sports drinks, it’s also worth mentioning protein shakes. If you lift weights, chances are at some point or another you have thought about taking a protein shake. Most shakes are made from whey protein and provide a quick and convenient way to get extra protein into your diet without eating more steak, eggs or fish. As most weight trainers know, protein is all but essential for muscle growth and post exercise recovery. However, like any nutrient taken to excess, too much protein can result in increases in body fat as even the leanest of shakes will contain 100 or more calories per 25 gram/0.88 ounce serving of protein.
While it’s true – protein is essential for muscle growth and repair, more protein than you need will not automatically turn into bigger or stronger muscles so if you are eating a well balanced and otherwise protein-rich diet, you might not need a protein shake after all.
Post workout drinks
After your workout, your muscles are crying out for nourishment and energy. Your sensitivity to insulin is elevated and your body is primed for refueling. With these factors in mind, post workout drinks normally contain a blend of fast acting carbs in the form of simple sugars and protein.
These drinks are designed to be fast acting, hence the sugar content, and provide essential amino acids necessary to kick start recovery and provide a convenient alternative to eating food immediately after your workout.
If you are lean, trying to increase muscle mass or improve your fitness performance then a post workout protein/carb drink can be very useful. If, however, you are exercising for fat loss, be aware that any post workout drink contains calories and if it tips you over your daily calorie requirements then it may inhibit fat loss.
About Mark Darco: Mark Darco is a professional personal trainer with 15 years experience and has worked with hundreds of clients. He has successfully completed multiple certifications and continues to provide fitness training to clients of all ages in the NYC area.