This has been a hot topic of debate. Some feel sports drinks are a waste of money, while others feel they are proven to be necessary and beneficial... let’s take a deeper look into this ongoing debate.
Originally sports drinks were designed for athletes doing endurance training in order to replenish fluid, glucose, electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium), and amino acids that are lost and used up during long and intense workouts. They also contain carbohydrates (sugar), a quick source of energy for athletes when stores are depleted from prolonged exercise. They also replete electrolytes lost through excessive sweating. Some sports drinks contain amino acids, such as l-arginine, l-glutamine, l-taurine, and l-glycine, which can be beneficial pre- and post-workout.
On a not so good note, many of them are high in sugar and calories. Some 250 mL drinks contain well over 20 g of sugar. With 4 g of sugar in a single teaspoon, this equated to 5 teaspoons of sugar. That adds up to a lot of sugar! Most people consuming sports drinks do not exercise enough to burn the caloric energy contained in one sports drink. Standard sports drinks typically contain mainly water, sugar, some electrolytes, and artificial colors and flavors. There are sugar-free alternatives available that contain sucralose or acesulfame potassium; however, I would recommend using drinks with stevia or another healthy sugar-free option instead.
While researching this subject, I came across a couple articles. One from 2012, published in the British Medical Journal, found a lack of evidence, poor study designs, and potential funding biases backing sports drink claims. Recently there was a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports that looked further into sports drink research and claims. Their study outcome found that sports drinks do make a difference and enhance endurance performance.
So, the take-away is this: if you are exercising for a few hours or more and want to increase and maximize your performance, fueling with drinks (containing a healthy carbohydrate source, electrolytes, and amino acids) before, during, and after these intense exercise sessions can be beneficial.