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Sports Drinks:

Are they effective in improving Athletic Performance?

James Caldwell

Table of Contents - Click on an item to go that section

Gatorade: How it works

Clinical Research on Sports Drinks.



Since the creation of Gatorade in 1987 sports drinks have become a staple of American athletics. Every major sports league, including the NBA, NHL, MLB, NFL and NASCAR, are sponsored by and use Gatorade Thirst Quencher. All Sport and Powerade, two other smaller market sports drinks, have limited sponsorships of smaller sports leagues including the NCAA. The question is, how effective is Gatorade and other sports drinks in doing what it they're advertised to do? One has to wonder if the wide use of Gatorade is merely due to billions of dollars of advertising pumped in by the company or if it actually does quench "that deep down body thirst." The majority of the internet research to determine the how and if these sports drinks work will center on Gatorade because it is the only sports drink with significant information on the world wide web. It shouldn't be too much of problem comparing sports drinks due to the fact that most of the sports drinks have rather similar ingredients.

The major reason anyone drinks fluid before, during and after physical activity is to replace the water that is lost through sweat. If the water isn't replaced dehydration will occur and performance will be hampered. The purpose of Gatorade and other sports drinks is to help rehydrate your body quickly and help improve performance and productivity. This is accomplished through a well balanced mix of water, sugar (carbohydrates) and salts (electrolytes), the major ingredients in most sports drinks. These ingredients, combined with a variety of fruit flavors, create pleasant tasting drinks that according to the companies are suppose to help your athletic performance. Three major problems we face every day from physical exertion is the loss of water and electrolytes, elevation of body temperature and depletion or energy reserves. If the sports drinks work as advertised they should be able to help us avoid those three problems.

Gatorade:How it Works

According to the official Gatorade web site there are four main ways in which Gatorade helps improve athletic performance and keeps our bodies functioning normally even under conditions of extreme physical exertion. First of all several of it ingredients stimulate rapid fluid absorption. Secondly it assures rapid rehydration which allows us to maintain physiological function and prevents dehydration. Third, the carbohydrates in Gatorade provide energy to working muscles. Finally it encourages you to drink more fluid. All the assertions made by Gatorade make sense but the question still remains about the overall effectiveness of Gatorade and other sports drinks. We will now take a closer look at the four major ways Gatorade is suppose to work and how it is suppose to help our athletic performance and general homeostasis.

Rapid Fluid Absorption. Rapid fluid absorption is important during strenuous athletic activity in order to avoid dehydration. According to Gatorade, research has shown that the 6% carbohydrate level and presence of salt found in their beverage is optimal for rapid fluid absorption. They also claim that as the carbohydrate level gets higher than 7% absorption is slowed and therefore fruit juices and some sports drinks aren't recommended during exercise.

Assures Rapid Rehydration. In this case consuming a "properly formulated carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage" such as Gatorade results in rapid rehydration. This rapid rehydration occurs for several reasons. First of all, according to Gatorade, the sodium in their drink helps maintain body fluids unlike other fluids such as water and caffinated beverages that can promote water loss through increased urination. As they state ,"research has shown that rehydration following exercise is more complete with Gatorade than with beverages such as water or diet cola." Seconldy,as we will discuss later, the sodium found in Gatorade as well as the taste of the beverage supposedly encourages continued consumption of liquids.

Provides Carbohydrate Energy to Working Muscles. The carbohydrates found in Gatorade are in the form of two sugars sucrose and glucose-fructose. These sugars provide the energy that makes Gatorade consumption during exercise better then plain water consumption. Carbohydrate consumption "allows us to work longer and harder and feel better " than when we just drink water.

Encourages You to Drink More. The presence of sodium and glucose n the Gatorade is suppose to stimulate fluid consumption in the body. It can encourage people to drink until they are completely rehydrated. Thirst isn't a good measure of dehydration because by the time we're thirsty we are already dehydrated. When we drink Gatorade the salt enhances flavor and balances with the citric acid to maintain a proper pH level, which induces more fluid intake. The small amount of sodium found in Gatorade encourages people to drink beyond the point at which "mouth thirst" is satisfied. Not only does the sodium play a factor in increased voluntary fluid intake but so does flavor and sweetness. The Gatorade home-page states that "


Lightly sweetened and flavored non-carbonated

beverages are preferred during exercise and are

consumed in greater quantities than are water, carbonated

soft drinks and fruit drinks.

These factors increase the voluntary intake of fluid which is important in the defense against dehydration.

Gatorade has no side effects that anyone should be worried about. So the major question doesn't deal with product safety but instead we have to wonder if it is worth paying the money? Is Gatorade better than water?According to the Gatorade home page Gatorade it is better than water for several reasons, many of which I have already mentioned. First of all plain water doesn't replace electrolytes that the body loses through sweat or energy lost during exercise. Secondly the good taste of Gatorade encourages people to drink more which is important in defending against dehydration. Finally the small amount of sodium in Gatorade also encourages people to drink more and allows the body to maintain fluid better after it has been consumed.

So there we have what the companies, in particular Gatorade, have to say about the effectiveness of their product and how it works. The question still remains as to how effective it actually is. With five major sports leagues using it I doubt there is anything wrong with it. Yet you have to wonder if Gatorade actually helping Michael Jordan, Dale Earnhardt and the thousands of other pro-athletes that endores and use it or is it just advertising.

Clinical Research on Sports Drinks.

One of the best ways to examine the validity of Gatorade's claims is to examine experimental research on sports drinks and see if the results match the claims. What I could determine from the few research articles available was ,that for the most part, Gatorade does what it claims to do. A research article by Louis M. Burke, of the Australian Institute of Sport in Victoria, on dietary supplements in sports states that for the most part sports drinks such as Gatorade do as they claim.

..during endurance and ultraendurance exercise, suitable

intake of a sports drink to preserve hydration and to supply

additional carbohydrate substrate for glycogen-depleted muscles

has been shown to improve performance. Additionally, the sports

drink may provide a special advantage in recovery and rehydration

after prolonged , particularly where more rapid

restoration of body fluids and fuel levels will enhance performance

in future exercise bouts.

The article describes the current position on sports drinks based on recent findings in exercise physiological research. These positions include first of all that carbohydrate intake during prolonged exercise has been repeatedly shown to enhance performance. Remember one of the major purposes of Gatorade was to replace lost energy with carbohydrates in the form of sugar.Secondly they state that research had shown that carbohydrate concentrations, like that found in Gatorade, doesn't effect gastric emptying rates which was first believed and would compromise athletic performance. And as stated on the web site Gatorade induces rapid reabsorption. The article also states that sodium (electrolyte) replacement, like that found in Gatorade, is very important particularly in ultraendurance events in reducing the risk of hyponatraemia. And contrary to popular belief that sports drinks are too salty and may increase the risk of hypertension this article states that the salt level is comparable to that of common fluids such as milk. Finally he concludes that the sports drinks studied have several important qualities most of which were mentioned on the Gatorade home page.

1) allows rapid delivery of fluid to the tissue

2) provides and adequate carbohydrate source for use

during endurance exercise

3) provides a low level of electrolytes

4) is palatable and refreshing during exercise

5) does not cause any gastro-intestinal problems.

Finally in several experiments, including Edwards and Santeusanio (1984) and Leatt and Jacobs (1989), successful testing of scheduled intake of carbohydrate and electrolyte drinks was documented during actual competition in cycling and soccer.

At the University of South Carolina, research by J.M. Davis and colleagues has proven two things. First that Gatorade is absorbed in the blood stream as fast as water helping to provide rapid rehydration and secondly Gatorade is superior to plain water for improving physical performance during prolonged physical activity.


Gatorade and other sports drinks have become a very important part of todays sports market, and it seems to be with good reason. Research has confirmed that for the most part the claims made by companies such as Gatorade about the effectiveness of their sports drinks true. Gatorade and other sports drink companies have put a lot of money into advertising and sponsoring a product that works as advertised. It is important to note that obviously Gatorade is not essential every time you work out and in some cases water may work just as well . But research has shown that for endurance events and athletic competitions Gatorade and other sports drinks are very effective in preventing dehydration and, unlike water, can provide carbohydrate energy to working muscles, stimulate rapid rehydration and can actually encourage you to drink enough fluid to avoid dehydration all without any adverse side effects. The only question that remains is whether or not it is worth paying a couple of dollars for a bottle of Gatorade or other similar sports drinks? For the most part this is a question that has to be left up to the consumer. The purpose of this paper is to help people understand more about sports drinks before they decide whether or not to use them. Overall, your athletic performance will not decline because you don't use Gatorade, but in the search for ways to improve athletic performance the use of sports drinks is a very good place to start.


Internet Sites Used.

Research Articles.

Burke,L.M. (1993). Dietary supplements in sports. Sports Medicine, 15(1), 43-65.

Davis,J.M. (1990). Fluid availability of sports drinks differing in carbohydrate type and concentration. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 51(6), 1054-7.

Ryan, A.J.(1991). Consumption of carbonated and noncarbonated sports drinks during prolonged treadmill exercise in the heat.International Journal of Sports Nutrition 1 (3),225-39


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