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Sports Drinks

Depletion of the body's carbohydrate stores and dehydration are two factors that will limit prolonged exercise.


Sweating is how the body maintains its core temperature at 37 degrees centigrade. This results in the loss of body fluid and electrolytes (minerals such as chloride, calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium) and if unchecked will lead to dehydration and eventually circulatory collapse and heat stroke. The effect of fluid loss on the body is as follows (Rehrer 1994)[1]:

% body weight lost as sweat Physiological Effect
2% Impaired performance
4% Capacity for muscular work declines
5% Heat exhaustion
7% Hallucinations
10% Circulatory collapse and heat stroke


Electrolytes serve three general functions in the body:

  • many are essential minerals
  • they control the osmosis of water between body compartments
  • they help maintain the acid-base balance required for normal cellular activities

The electrolyte composition of sweat is variable but comprises of the following components:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Chloride
  • Bicarbonate
  • Phosphate
  • Sulphate

A litre of sweat typically contains 0.02g Calcium, 0.05g Magnesium, 1.15g Sodium, 0.23g Potassium and 1.48g Chloride. This composition will vary from person to person (Hamilton 2005)[2].


Carbohydrate is stored as glucose in the liver and muscles and is the most efficient source of energy as it requires less oxygen to be burnt than either Protein or fat. The normal body stores of carbohydrate in a typical athlete are:

  • 70kg male athlete - Liver glycogen 90g and muscle glycogen 400g
  • 60kg female athlete - Liver glycogen 70g and muscle glycogen 300g.

During hard exercise, carbohydrate can be depleted at a rate of 3-4 grams per minute. If this is sustained for 2 hours or more, a large fraction of the total body carbohydrate stores will be exhausted and if not checked will result in reduced performance.

Recovery of the muscle and liver glycogen stores after exercise will normally require 24-48 hours for complete recovery.

During exercise, there is in an increased uptake of blood glucose by the muscles and to prevent blood glucose levels falling, the liver produces glucose from the liver stores and lactate.

Consuming carbohydrate before, during and after exercise will help prevent blood glucose levels falling too low and help maintain the body's glycogen stores. Many athletes cannot consume the food before or during exercise, and therefore, a formulated drink that will provide carbohydrate is required.


Fluid absorption

Two main factors affect the speed at which fluid from a drink gets into the body:

  • the rate at which it is emptied from the stomach
  • the rate at which it is absorbed through the walls of the small intestine

The higher the carbohydrate levels in a drink, the slower the rate of stomach emptying. Isotonic drinks with a carbohydrate level of between 6 and 8% are emptied from the stomach at a rate similar to water. Electrolytes, especially sodium and potassium, in a drink will reduce urine output, enable the fluid to empty quickly from the stomach, promote absorption from the intestine and encourage fluid retention (Unknown 1993)[3].

What is wrong with water?

  • water causes bloating which will suppress thirst and therefore drinking
  • water contains no carbohydrate or electrolytes

Calculating personal fluid needs

During an endurance event, you should drink just enough to be sure you lose no more than 2% of the pre-race weight. This can be achieved in the following way:

  • Record your naked bodyweight immediately before and after many training sessions, along with details of distance/duration, clothing and weather conditions
  • Add the amount of fluid taken during the session to the amount of weight loss - 1 kilogram (kg) is roughly equivalent to 1 litre of fluid (1lb approx. 0.5 litres)
  • After a few weeks, you should begin to see some patterns emerging and can calculate your sweat rate per hour
  • Once you know what your sweat losses are likely to be in any given set of environmental conditions, you can plan your drinking strategy for any particular event

Sports Drinks

There are three types of sports drink, all of which contain various levels of fluid, electrolytes and carbohydrate.

Type Content
Isotonic Fluid, electrolytes and 6 to 8% carbohydrate
Hypotonic Fluids, electrolytes and a low level of carbohydrate
Hypertonic High level of carbohydrate

The osmolality of a fluid is a measure of the number of particles in a solution. In a drink, these particles will comprise carbohydrate, electrolytes, sweeteners and preservatives. In blood plasma, the particles will comprise of sodium, proteins and glucose. Blood has an osmolality of 280 to 330mOsm/kg. Drinks with an osmolality of 270 to 330mOsm/kg are said to be in balance with the body's fluid and are called Isotonic. Hypotonic fluids have fewer particles than blood and Hypertonic have more particles than blood.

Consuming fluids with a low osmolality, e.g. water, results in a fall in the blood plasma osmolality and reduces the drive to drink well before sufficient fluid has been consumed to replace losses.

Which is most suitable?

Isotonic - quickly replaces fluids lost by sweating and supplies a boost of carbohydrate. This drink is the choice for most athletes - middle and long-distance running or team sports. Glucose is the body's preferred source of energy. It may be appropriate to consume Isotonic drinks where the carbohydrate source is glucose in a concentration of 6% to 8%, e.g. High Five, SiS Go, Boots Isotonic, Lucozade Sport.

Hypotonic - quickly replaces fluids lost by sweating. Suitable for athletes who need fluid without the boost of carbohydrate, e.g. jockeys and gymnasts.

Hypertonic - used to supplement daily carbohydrate intake normally after exercise to top up muscle glycogen stores. In ultra-distance events, high levels of energy are required, and Hypertonic drinks can be taken during exercise to meet the energy demands. If used during exercise Hypertonic drinks need to be used in conjunction with Isotonic drinks to replace fluids.

Want to make your own?

Isotonic - 200ml of orange squash (concentrated orange), 1 litre of water and a pinch of salt (1g). Mix all the ingredients and keep chilled

Hypotonic - 100ml of orange squash (concentrated orange), 1 litre of water and a pinch of salt (1g). Mix all the ingredients and keep chilled.

Hypertonic - 400ml of orange squash (concentrated orange), 1 litre of water and a pinch of salt (1g). Mix all the ingredients and keep chilled.

Dental Health

Sports drinks commonly contain citric acid. All acids have an erosive potential, but the method of drinking will influence whether or not those acids affect the teeth. Sports drinks should be consumed as quickly as possible, preferably with a straw and not be held or swished around the mouth. Retaining drinks in the mouth will only increase the risk of erosion. Refrigerated drinks will have reduced erosive potential, as the acid dissolution constant is temperature-dependent (Milosevic et al. 1997)[4].

Food for thought

In a trial conducted by scientists in the city of Aberdeen, it was determined that a 2% carbohydrate-electrolyte drink provided more effective combat to exercise fatigue in a hot climate when compared to a 15% carbohydrate-electrolyte mixture (Galloway and Maughan 2000)[5].

Seven Rules of Hydration (Troop 1994)[6]

  1. The rate of passage of water from your stomach into your small intestine depends on how much fluid is in your stomach. If there is lots of water there, fluid flow from the stomach to the intestine is like a springtime flood; if there is little water, the movement resembles a lightly dripping tap. Therefore, to increase stomach-intestinal flow (and overall absorption of water), you need to deposit a fair amount of liquid in your stomach just before you begin your exercise. 10-12 ounces of fluid is a good start. This will feel uncomfortable at first, so practice funnelling this amount of beverage into your "tank" several times before an actual competition.
  2. To sustain a rapid movement of fluid into your small intestine during your exertions, take three to four sips of beverage every 10 minutes if possible, or five to six swallows every 15 minutes.
  3. If you are going to be exercising for less than 60 minutes, do not worry about including carbohydrate in your drink; plain water is fine. For exercise that is more prolonged, you will want the carbohydrate.
  4. Years of research have suggested that the correct concentration of carbohydrate in your drink is about 5 to 7%. Most commercial sports drinks fall within this range, and you can make your own 6% drink by mixing five tablespoons of table sugar with each litre of water that you use. A bit of sodium boosts absorption; one-third teaspoon of salt per litre of water is about right. Although 5 to 7% of carbohydrate solutions seem to work best for most individuals, there is evidence that some endurance athletes can fare better with higher concentrations. In research carried out at Liverpool John Moores University, for example, cyclists who ingested a 15% maltodextrin solution improved their endurance by 30 per cent compared to individuals who used a 5% glucose drink. The 15% drink also drained from the stomach as quickly as the 5% one, though many other studies have linked such concentrated drinks with a slowdown in water movement.
  5. A 6% "simple sugar" drink will empty from your stomach at about the same rate as a fancy 6% "glucose polymer" beverage, so do not fall for the idea that the latter can boost water absorption or enhance your performance more than the former, and don't pay more for the glucose-polymer concoction.
  6. Contrary to what you have heard, cold drinks are not absorbed into your body more quickly than warm ones. However, cold drinks are often more palatable than warm ones during exercise, so if coldness helps you to drink large quantities of fluid while you exert yourself, then keep your drinks cool.
  7. Swilling drinks during exercise do NOT increase your risk of digestive system problems. In actuality, most gut disorders that arise during exercise are caused by dehydration, not from taking in the fluid. Dehydration induces nausea and discomfort by reducing blood flow to the digestive system, so keep drinking!

Water Intoxication

Intracellular fluid and interstitial fluid have the same osmotic pressures under normal circumstances. The principal cation inside the cell is Potassium, and the principal cation outside the cell is Sodium. A fluid imbalance between these two compartments is caused by a change in the Potassium or Sodium concentration. Sodium balance in the body is controlled by aldosterone and antidiuretic hormone (ADH). ADH regulates extracellular fluid electrolyte concentration by adjusting the amount of water reabsorbed into the blood by the kidneys. Aldosterone regulates extracellular fluid volume by adjusting the amount of sodium reabsorbed by the blood from the kidneys.

Certain conditions may result in a decrease in sodium concentration in interstitial fluid. For instance, during sweating, the skin excretes sodium as well as water. If we replace the lost fluid with plain water, then we may produce a sodium deficit. The decrease in sodium concentration in the interstitial fluid lowers the interstitial fluid osmotic pressure and establishes an effective water concentration between the interstitial fluid and the intracellular fluid. Water moves from the interstitial fluid into the cells, producing two results that can be quite serious:

  • The first result, an increase in intracellular water concentration, called overhydration which disrupts nerve cell function. In severe overhydration, we may see the disoriented behaviour, convulsions, coma, and even death
  • The second result is a loss of interstitial fluid volume that leads to a decrease in the interstitial fluid pressure. As the pressure drops, water moves out of the plasma, resulting in a loss of blood volume that may lead to circulatory shock.


Alcohol is a high-octane fuel, but it cannot be metabolised to provide energy except in the liver and then only at a very slow rate. The energy provided by alcohol tends to be converted to fat, and excessive consumption may cause liver damage. As a diuretic, it will cause dehydration and evidence suggest that vitamin B and C may be depleted. Excessive alcohol will diminish aerobic capacity and impair motor function.


  1. REHRER, N.J. (1994) The Maintenance of Fluid Balance During Exercise. International Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 15(3), p. 122-125
  2. HAMILTON, A. (2005) Sports Drinks or water: What is the best choice for sports performers. Peak Performance, 212, p.1-5
  3. UNKNOWN (1993) The Effect of Different Forms of Fluid Provision on Exercise Performance. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 14, p. 298
  4. MILOSEVIC, A. and KELLY, M.J. and McLEAN, A.N. (1997) Sports supplement drinks and dental health in competitive swimmers and cyclists. British Dental Journal 182, p. 303-308
  5. GALLOWAY, S.D.R. and MAUGHAN, R.J. (2000) The effects of substrate and fluid provision on ermoregulatory and metabolic responses to prolonged exercise in a hot environment. Journal of Sports Sciences, 18 (5), p. 339-351
  6. TROOP, R. (1994) Drink your way to winning performances: the seven secrets of hydration, Peak Performance (August 1994), p. 11-12

Related References

The following references provide additional information on this topic:

  • COOMBES, J. S. and HAMILTON, K. L. (2000) The effectiveness of commercially available sports drinks. Sports Medicine, 29 (3), p. 181-209
  • MILOSEVIC, A. (1997) Sports drinks hazard to teeth. British journal of sports medicine, 31 (1), p. 28-30
  • MAUGHAN, R. J. and MURRAY, R. (Eds.) (2002) Sports drinks: basic science and practical aspects. Crc Press.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2000) Sports Drinks [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

Related Pages

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