Sports beverages are marketed heavily – to adult athletes as well as youth athletes. Some athletes drink them nearly every day while other athletes won’t touch them. So what makes sports beverages good and what makes them bad? And should they be a part of your sports nutrition strategy?

The real scoop on sports beveragesSports Drinks Image

Studies show that when athletes are given the choice between plain water and a flavored sports beverage, they will drink more of the sports beverage. In essence, sports beverages do a better job of helping athletes staying hydrated. They also contain carbohydrate, which provides energy to refuel the working muscles.

Sports beverages also replenish lost electrolytes. When you sweat, you lose five key electrolytes: sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium and calcium. The electrolyte you’re losing the most is sodium. By drinking sports beverages, you’re not necessarily replacing every bit of sodium that you lost. However, the sodium you’re taking in ushers fluid into the muscles, helping with muscle rehydration.

Sports beverages contain the right amount of carbohydrate, which is what refuels working muscles. A beverage that has too little carbohydrate doesn’t help refuel the muscles. A beverage that has too much carbohydrate can make an athlete very sick because during exercise there’s not a lot of blood flow going to the stomach.

Important! Many people worry about a sugar spike and a sugar crash from sports beverages. Any spike in glucose or insulin prior to exercise does not last long and does not harm performance when exercise begins.

It is helpful to understand that exercise causes an increase in the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and growth hormone, and these hormones inhibit the release of insulin, which prevents a reduction in blood glucose, or a “sugar crash”. Learn more about sugar in sports drinks here >>

What about water?

While still good for you, drinking only water during hard exercise won’t give you enough carbohydrate or electrolytes. (Something like orange juice is not optimal either because it doesn’t have the electrolyte sodium and provides way too much carbohydrate.)

When is it beneficial to drink sports beverages?

  • Right before exercise to get in some carbs and to hydrate, but try this at practice sessions to make sure it’s okay on your stomach before competition.
  • During exercise if it’s hot or humid, if your workout is intense, or if working out longer than 1 hour.
  • After moderate-intense exercise of an hour or longer. A 45 minute jog in cool weather does not constitute the need for a sports beverage. Water is fine. 
Outside of these conditions, there is no need for sports beverages. You don’t need them throughout the day, in math class, at breakfast, etc. When you’re not practicing or competing, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and getting fluids from other beverages (not soda) and from fruits and vegetables.

Soda vs Sports Beverages

Soda is not a good choice to fuel or refuel. Period. 

Soda has twice as much sugar per ounce as sports beverages and does not provide ANY of the nutrients needed for optimal performance. It’s not formulated with electrolytes in the same way as sports beverages. Also, many sodas are sweetened with only high fructose corn syrup, whereas sports beverages use multiple sources of transportable carbohydrates that quickly and effectively deliver glucose to the working muscles. 

Energy Drinks vs Sports Beverages

Energy drinks provide a temporary fix, or “energy high”. If they sound like a drug, it’s because they almost are!

Once the fix of an energy drink runs out, you need more in order to feel the energy high again. Keep in mind that the high typically comes from a high dosage of caffeine that’s the equivalent to 1-4 cups of coffee. 

With caffeine, your body eventually builds up a tolerance and needs more and more of it to achieve the same effect. Bad side effects go hand-in-hand, such as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, shakiness and upset stomach.  Of course, you’ll also eventually experience the inevitable energy crash associated with caffeine.

Like soda, energy drinks don’t provide the nutrients and electrolytes needed for optimal performance and recovery. 

Coconut Water vs Sports Beverages

Coconut water is often advertised as a sports beverage with sodium. While coconut water is in fact a great source of potassium, it does not contain as much of the electrolyte sodium as sports beverages. Since you lose more sodium than potassium during exercise, a sports beverage can help you recover faster than coconut water.

Other Beverages to Consider

Tart cherry juice has been shown to reduce muscle soreness, protect against muscle damage, and aid in recovery. Keep in mind that an 8-ounce serving has 140 calories, so factor that into your total daily calorie intake. We recommend  Cheribundi and Cherrish for tart cherry juice.

Beet root juice has been shown to help reduce blood pressure, increase blood flow, and improve athletic performance. We recommend BEETELITE which is the choice of many NCAA teams.

Understanding Sugar and Sports Beverages

When you look at sports beverages, you may see several types of sugar on the label. Sucrose is table sugar. Fructose is naturally occurring fruit sugar. Lactose is milk sugar.

Don’t panic about the sugar.

The sugars in sports beverages are there for good reason. Each of these sugars has its own pathway that it can take to get delivered into your body and into your muscles. When sports beverages contain several types of sugars, they’re simply just using different pathways. Some sports beverages may have a mixture of these sugars and some may not.

Your best use of sports beverages is using the ones that feel good and work for you. Try out some different brands. Know how to drink them at the optimal times, without dilution (which would dilute the electrolytes you need). And know when plain old water may be the best choice.


Homemade Orangeade Sports Drink


  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1 ½ – 2 cups of fresh water
  • 1/8 teaspoon of sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons honey

Directions:  Blend all ingredients by hand, or in a blender until honey is dissolved. Enjoy with a few ice cubes in a glass.

Here are some additional homemade sports beverage recipes >>


Tracy Owens

About Tracy Owens

Tracy Owens (MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN) is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). She has worked in private practice, providing clinical and sports nutrition for over 20 years. Her two sons and two daughters have played AAU baseball, USSSA baseball, Legion baseball, Challenge, United, Premier, Elite and ECNL soccer at Capital Area Soccer League (CASL), USTA tennis, summer swim teams, and high school football, swimming, baseball and soccer. Two of her children played Division 1 soccer at North Carolina State University.

Change Your Nutrition and Change Your Game!