Are sports drinks really bad for you? – our say

The sports and energy drinks industry has been cast into a limelight they would probably rather have avoided in the last few months, an avalanche that seemed to begin rolling with BBC’s “Panorama – the truth about sports drinks” which they followed up by a report on the BBC website called “Lack of evidence that popular sports drinks work“.

Timothy Noakes, author of the biblically proportioned “Lore of Running“, has long been a critique of the sports drink industry and the particular branch of scientist they use to support their aims (their aims being to make money for their stakeholders, unsurprisingly) which he calls “contrarian scientist‐turned‐lobbyists” in a 2007 thesis. Noakes has watched with horror as dubious statements about the benefits of sports drinks have led to the creation of the condition “exercise-associated hyponatremia” and recently published the book “Waterlogged” to deal with the myths, prevent future fatalities and bring common-sense back into athlete’s hydration strategies.

What’s your stance on sports drinks?

With our “old school training” system we systematically reject the spurious notion marketed by several sports and energy drinks company’s to “drink as much as you can, even when not thirsty” but the common-sense argument that says “just drink water”, unfortunately has its limits.

In most shorter races little or no hydration is needed and in those cases if you should feel like drinking, pure water is fine. The challenge arises when you lose huge quantities of fluid due to heat and decide to try and replace them. In those cases, you do need to understand that the priority of rehydration in such circumstances is to replace fluids and maintain what is called “osmolality” – the concentration of salts, sugars and other substances in your bloodstream. Imagine your blood as a half-full pint of water filled with one tablespoon of salt. Let’s pretend this is the normal “osmolality”, or concentration, of salt. If the concentration get’s too high or too low, you will die. Now, if you pour the glass full with water, then obviously you have just halved the concentration of salt. This would likely be fatal.

If you fill the glass and pour in another table-spoon of salt, then you maintain the status quo and, as the glass is still not overflowing, everything is well. Now, if you fill the glass, but pour only half a tea spoonful of salt into the glass, you have reduced the concentration of salt. However, you are better off than you would have been if you had poured only water into the glass but not as well of as you would have been had you poured the full tea spoon of salt into the glass.

All that being said, remember that a trained persistance hunter who has lived most of his life in the wild can run for many hours subsisting only on nibbles of dried meat, some nuts and water. A lot depends on the degree to which you have been separated from your “natural hardiness”

“Osmolality” – often absent from the debate, yet central to it

Because the concentration of salt in the human body is so high that it makes any drink with a similar amount unpalatable, most sports drinks seek a happy medium and try to apply a concentration that is as high as possible but not as high as what you need to keep the status quo. What this means in effect is that sports drink slow down the degradation in osmolality slower than if you drank water but not as enough to make them harmless to ingest in very large quantities. From personal experience from running very long events, such as ultras, in the heat, it is generally necessary to lace your drinks with additional salts (from sources such as Diarolyte sachets) or by taking in soup at aid stations with spoonfuls of salt poured into it. This obviously, is not a strategy you should generally adopt for marathons which is why you should always aim to complete somewhat dehydrated rather than over-hydrated. The rule, however, is to “drink as you feel”, as we shall see below.

When we teach our “Old school training” workshop, we make a big point out of stating that “supplements” (including sports drinks) are not food and should not be treated as such. They are products of convenience to be digested when another option is either not tolerated or not practical. In those cases, we would look at what products had the fewest undesirable qualities and an absence of both stimulants, sugar syrups, sweeteners, whey protein, colourings, additives and preservatives.

Drinking strategy during events

There are no set guidelines on how to do this but evidence presented by Ross Tucker and Jonathan Douglas (“The sports scientists“) clearly suggests that “ad libitum” drinking (as you feel) is the most reliable apart from a few rare situations when a person is already borderline suffering from heat-stroke (in those conditions, your brain basically does not work so well!). This is consistent with both our “old school” training system and the general ethos of “keeping things natural” , our specialists on the topic of applying natural principles to training and life in general.

Potassium and sodium balance

Another heavily overlooked point in the debate is that all salts are not created equal. Many sports drinks contain all sorts of unnecessary content but salts are important (for the reasons outlined above) but you need these in the right proportions. Sodium is essentially table salt and too high quantities are not desirable and most of us easily eat too much in our normal diet. Potassium on the other hand, is something most people generally get too little off in their daily diet.

This is unfortunate because the potassium/sodium balance in the body has profound implications for your health and performance and maintaining the correct level is critical for heart function, nerve impulse transmission and muscle contraction. Pretty important for performing well in an event! Western diet is already heavily deficient in potassium so if you add mounting dehydration onto this and then drink a poor sports drink with miserable proportions of sodium to potassium, you are bound to see lack of benefits or event detrimental effects (Orbana’s ratio of potassium to sodium is 0.98, most leading sports drinks have a ratio of 0, meaning no potassium at all, to 0.18). The recommend ratio is closer over 2 times potassium to sodium but whether this would be palatable in a drink is another matter. Potassium issues can also lead to problems with calcium and magnesium which serve their own functions, so this way you have a whole chain reaction.

When companies formulate supplements and sports drink mixtures, the risk is that they essentially take the nutrients, vitamins and minerals “out of context” and forget that when eaten through food these elements tend to come “in certain combinations”. Many of the older sports drinks have not changed their formulation for a very long time and are essentially just a mixture of salts, sugar, preservatives and colourings. Newer brands such as Accelerade and Orbana Healthy Energy try to mimic more closely the healthy content of fruit. This is a difficult task so when you assess their success, runners and athletes should look for whether they feel the product enhances their well-being around races and in the days immediately following this. This should, again, only be done in conjunction with a healthy diet being eaten as well. If your diet is already riddled with deficits – in nutrients, calories, minerals or otherwise – then not even the best supplement can hope to make much of a positive impact.

Self-made sports drinks and fake foods in general

You may ask at this junction: can I formulate my own sports drinks? Absolutely. Most of us are busy and like to have such things done for us, but if you like to give it a go, you’ll know exactly what is in the drink and you’ll know its natural (unless you pour in something unnatural that is, plenty of that available in supermarkets).

This last point deserves to be belabored a bit more: if you go to your supermarket and look at all the foods that are “in the centre” (so not the meats, salads, fruits, vegetables, eggs, nuts and dairy products), the majority of “foods” that you will buy there are in reality no better, and sometimes worse, than sports drinks – heavily processed amalgamations of largely unhealthy ingredients that never played any role in natural nutrition or that are just bundles of processed sugar.

The sports drinks industry is long overdue BBC’s scathing documentary but the sports drinks are a symptom of a much wider problem in the relationship we have to what we eat and drink and we easily get deflected away from the really important issues. When we criticise sports drinks we need to expand that critical eye to all processed foods.

Do we have to wait for more science to tell us what to do?

One of the biggest intellectual problems we face today is that many people educated in science, particularly medicine, have (wrongly) been educated to believe that science progresses only through manner of experiment. We know this not to be the case because geology is a perfectly respectable science but you cannot design observable geology experiments because of the vast time-frames over which such changes occur. Astronomy similarly produces amazing results based on observation alone. The same goes for the theory of evolution, one of the strongest and most bullet-proof theories in all of science, yet it’s underpinned only by the fact we can: 1) observe with great accuracy the inevitable results of an evolutionary, rather than designed, process and 2) use the theory to predict future development with great accuracy.

Therefore the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this paragraph is “no, you don’t have to wait for science to tell you more on this subject”. You drink when you are thirsty but in those cases drinks including the correct mixture of salts will be better for overall performance than those that don’t because of the problem of osmolality described above. In shorter races, 10k or less, this is not an issue, so you can simply go with water, but most runners will not need to drink at all (this depends how long it takes you and how hot the day is). Any healthy human being can easily go without water even while racing for at least an hour, unless conditions are extreme, so the effect of sipping on a bit of water is purely psychological in many such cases.

A polarised debate – let’s bring it back to the middle

We love to be reductionist, it’s one of the few bad habits modern science has taught our population, and simplify discussions down to “a causes b, therefore b must go” or always positing stances as if they are “black and white” when answers are almost invariably complex and context-specific and causes are almost never straightforward but the products of very complex systems premeditating outcomes. So it is with sports drinks: throw poorly designed products at a modern population that has largely lost feel for how to safeguard their own well-being, who have lost touch with natural life and natural food and bring huge interest groups to bear, filling these same people with fear about what happens when you dehydrate and you get an explosive cocktail leading to hyponatremia. But it is this system you need to fix. Removing poorly designed drinks is part of that solution. Another is proper education and removing the fear-mongering around the topic. A third is to accept correctly formulated sports drinks can play a role in certain situations for certain individuals – especially those far divorced from their natural habitat.  But this stance is also pretty boring when it comes to our hunger for sensationalism, but it is our stance nevertheless.

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.