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What It Takes To Fuel A Champion: The Sports Drink

Published on:

August 4, 2021

Every two years, athletes from around the globe gather for a chance to compete at the Olympic Games. The best of their class, these athletes train hard in hopes of taking home a gold medal for their country. This year, we’re interested in more than just the incredible skill of those participating in the Tokyo Olympics; as beverage developers, we’re also paying attention to how the world’s best athletes are hydrating their bodies.

When you work out as much as an Olympian, plain water just doesn’t cut it anymore. That’s why most athletes incorporate sports drinks into their regimen. Discover what it takes to fuel a champion, including why the composition of the ingredients matter.

What’s In A Sports Drink?

While it’s true that sports drinks can contain a range of ingredients (think antioxidants, vitamins, and flavor additives), for the most part they are made up of three components: water, electrolytes, and simple carbs. Though it may not sound like much, this trifecta of ingredients is critical to the performance-enhancing functionality of the drink. Here’s why:

Okay–water is pretty self-explanatory. We need water for hydration.

Electrolytes can be a little more complicated to explain… As strange as it sounds, electrolytes are chemical substances that conduct electricity when dissolved in water. We lose electrolytes when we work out or when we’re recovering from an illness (yes, hangovers count too). Consuming drinks high in electrolytes (i.e., sports drinks) can help you get back on track.

Common electrolytes include sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonates, magnesium, chloride, phosphate, and more. Maintaining a healthy balance of electrolytes is essential for normal functioning of the human body. Many of the body’s automatic processes rely on a small electric current to function and electrolytes provide this necessary charge. By interacting with cells and tissues, electrolytes regulate nerve and muscle function, keep your body hydrated, balance blood acidity, and assist in rebuilding damaged tissue.

Still with us? Good. Luckily the last ingredient is likely something you already know…

Simple carbs are essentially just sugars. A staple in sports drinks, simple carbs can come in many forms including raw sugar, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, fructose, and sucrose. Not only do simple carbs add sweetness and flavor to sports drinks, but they also provide energy and help the body maintain stable blood glucose levels during a workout.

Of course, you can still have too much of a good thing. For one, sugars are not all created equally. Different sugars use different transport mechanisms to pass through the intestinal wall: that means the type of sugars/sugar combinations being consumed (as well as the rate of consumption) will have an impact on the body’s ability to effectively absorb and oxidize those carbs. There are also risks involved in consuming too many electrolytes. If left unchecked, electrolyte imbalances (excess or deficiency) can cause twitching and weakness, or worse symptoms like seizures and heart rhythm disturbances.

These are just some of the reasons why professional athletes don’t just go for any sports drink. Different ratios of ingredients can have huge implications for even the best performers. You can bet that before a sports drink makes its way into the program of any professional athlete, they are meticulously researched.

Why Composition Matters

As functional beverages, sports drinks should be selected based off of their composition to ensure they meet an athlete’s (or consumer’s) specific needs. Based off of the carbohydrate content, sports drinks can be classified into three categories:

  1. Isotonic (6-8% carbs)
  2. Hypotonic (>6% carbs)
  3. Hypertonic (>8% carbs)

Each of these compositions serves a different purpose. Isotonic sports drinks contain a similar amount of carbohydrates and electrolytes as found naturally in the human body. Isotonic sports drinks are designed to restore water, sugars, and salts lost during exercise, while providing the electrolytes and carbohydrates necessary to maintain the body’s glycogen content. This is important for fueling and regulating physical activity, particularly in short-duration, high-intensity exercise involving explosive movements. Most sports drinks on the market fall under the isotonic classification–think Gatorade, Maximus, or Staminade.

Hypotonic sports drinks contain a reduced amount of carbohydrates. Research suggests that hypotonic sports drinks are more easily absorbed by the body than isotonic sports drinks, making them a great option for athletes prioritizing fluid replacement (hydration) over carbs (energy). Hypotonic sports drinks are best used for activity lasting more than an hour, or when a lot of sweat is lost. Examples include Hydralyte Sports, Mizone, and Powerade Zero.

Finally, hypertonic sports drinks are those that contain the highest percentage of carbohydrates. These high-carb drinks increase the rate of water flow into the intestine where nutrients can be absorbed quickly through osmolarity. This provides a swift shot of energy to the system, however, it can also cause dehydration and GI distress–a major reason why these drinks are typically reserved for short duration activity or recovery. Some examples include hydrogels (a carb-rich biopolymer), protein-enriched recovery drinks, and energy drink brands like Lucozade and GU Roctane.

Sports drinks may have been invented as a custom solution for a famous Florida college football team, but today the category serves athletes and fitness enthusiasts of all kinds–yep, even Olympic gold medalists.

If you’ve got an innovative idea for the next sports drink, Flavorman can help you bring it to life! Get started by filling out this webform or by giving us a call at (502) 273-5214.


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