Sports Drinks: What’s In Them & When Do Athletes Need Them?

Greenletes / Sports Nutrition / Hydration / Sports Drinks: What’s In Them & When Do Athletes Need Them?

Last updated on September 27th, 2023 at 11:37 am

Sports drinks are necessary for endurance athletes, but make sure your pick has these three ingredients.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

If you read nutrition headlines often, you probably think sports drinks are “bad for you”. In reality, sports drinks have a place in an athlete’s fueling regimen and can be a helpful fueling tool.

The key is knowing the right time to use a sports drink, how much to take in, and what kind to choose. Specifically, a sports drink should have three main types of ingredients (more on that in a second).

This post helps break down the components of sports drinks, how to incorporate them into your fueling plan and whether or not you should try sports drink alternatives.

If you’re interested in learning more about hydration and fueling for running, check out The No-Brainer Nutrition Guide For Every Runner.

What’s ideal in a sports drink?

There are a ton of sports drinks on store shelves, all with different types of ingredients. Some advertise that they are low in sugar, while others have higher-than-normal amounts of electrolytes.

Some sports drinks even claim to be zero calorie, but that begs the question whether or not they are a functional beverage for athletes.

An adequate sports drink should consist of three basic components: fluid, carbohydrates (otherwise known as sugar), and electrolytes (usually sodium and potassium). Let’s break down why each of these types of ingredients are important for athletes.


The body is made up of over 60% water, and it’s important to health and performance to keep the bodily fluid balance in check. During exercise, you lose fluid through sweat. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that athletes lose no more than 2% of their body weight during exercise.

lemon water

For example, a 140-pound woman should not lose more than 2.8 pounds during exercise. Any more than that is a sign of severe dehydration. You can replace these fluids with water, but the carbohydrates and electrolytes in sports drinks help with fluid uptake into the cells.

For exercise that is less than 60 minutes, water is enough to replace fluid losses. But for exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes, consider a sports drink to stay adequately hydrated.


This macronutrient is a critical part of a sports drink because the muscles rely on carbs for quick-acting energy. Within the body, carbs break down into a simple sugar called glucose. When glucose levels are low in the body, the intensity and duration of your exercise will suffer. [Related: 11 Best Healthy Carbs For Athletes].

Bodily glucose levels start to become diminished after about 60 minutes of exercise. That’s when a sports drink comes in handy.

Ideally, sports drinks should contain two forms of carbohydrates, such as glucose and fructose. Each sugar has its own gut transporter (a protein that helps the sugar get where it needs to go in the body), which moves the sugar into the small intestine.

If you drink a sports drink with too much of one type of sugar, the transporters can get overwhelmed, causing unwanted fluid to move into the intestines. This leads to bloating, discomfort and even painful cramping. The two forms of carbohydrates in a sports drink can reduce the amount of GI problems you might experience during exercise.

Most sports drinks consist of between 4-8% carbs. A 6–8% carbohydrate concentration is ideal because it contains a similar amount of salt and sugar to that of blood. Therefore, a sports drink with 6-8% carbs helps the body absorb the fluids more rapidly.


Electrolyte is a fancy word to describe both sodium and potassium, both of which are lost in sweat. Replacing them is an important part of staying hydrated because they promote fluid balance within the body. [See how you can replace them naturally with foods.]

electrolytes in a sports drink

Cells need to have optimal levels of sodium and potassium to function properly, and those levels can get thrown out of whack when you’re dehydrated. The sodium and potassium in a sports drink help the body take in fluid and prevent dehydration.

When does an athlete need a sports drink?

Sports drinks are not necessary every time you exercise, but they can be beneficial in certain situations. A walk around the block or light yoga session does not require a bottle of Gatorade. Yet, any moderate to intense exercise exceeding an hour in length should include a sports drink to replace lost fluids, provide fuel for muscles, and replenish sodium and potassium lost in sweat. 

After 60 minutes of exercise, carbohydrate stores in the muscles and blood sugar levels begin to decrease. This is when your energy levels start to plummet. Athletes who train for several hours per day, such as marathon runners or triathletes, need to take in fluid and dietary carbs to maintain energy levels.

when do you need a sports drink?

If that’s you, a sports drink should be part of your fueling and nutrition plan. Lastly, if you exercise outdoors during the hot summer months, it can be beneficial to consume a sports drink, especially if you notice that you’re sweating excessively.

Will a sports drink give me GI issues?

Some athletes find that sports drinks upset their stomach. Here are some ways to combat that:

  • If you do choose to consume a sports drink, sip the beverage slowly to reduce any potential stomach problems.
  • If you’re new to sports drinks, keep the portion size smaller–around four ounces. Or, dilute the sports drink with some water until it’s palatable.
  • Your gut needs to learn to tolerate the high sugar content of a sports drink, so start with incorporating them into your long training runs. If you don’t have any GI distress, you can drink more if you need it.
  • The amount you need depends on your body weight, sweat rate, sodium losses, and the intensity of the activity, but a good rule of thumb is eight ounces of beverage for every 30 minutes of exercise after the initial 60 minutes of exercise.

How does coconut water compare to a sports drink?

Coconut water naturally contains electrolytes lost in sweat and has been marketed as a sports beverage. An 8-ounce serving of coconut water contains 11g (4%) of carbohydrates and 45 calories. While it’s not the ideal carbohydrate concentration, coconut water does provide some sugar to help sustain energy levels in activity lasting longer than an hour.

coconut water

I use coconut water as the base for my homemade sports drink because it’s full of potassium. As an added bonus, an 8-ounce serving also contains 100% the daily value of Vitamin C. Some research has shown that coconut water may be as hydrating as a sports drink, and may serve as an adequate sport drink substitute. If you want to give it a try, add a pinch of salt to the coconut water to replace sodium losses.

How do you make a homemade sports drink?

Personally, I like making my own sports drink to save money and omit any artificial colors or flavors. I think my homemade version tastes better than the store bought one too. Grab the recipe for my homemade sports drink here.

How does vitaminwater compare to a sports drink?

This flavored water comes in many flavors and varieties. A standard bottle contains 120 calories in 20 fluid ounces and 32-34g (11%) carbohydrates. The excessive amount of carbohydrate in vitaminwater is not needed for athletic activity and could cause an upset stomach during exercise. In addition, vitaminwater does not contain any potassium or sodium to replace lost electrolytes. With its high sugar content, vitaminwater should not be used as a sport drink.

Is watermelon juice good for athletes?

An 8-ounce serving of watermelon juice contains 15g of carbohydrates (5%), 740 mg of Potassium (6x the average sports drink) and no sodium. The concentration of potassium in sweat is far less than sodium, and potassium is present in many foods, making a deficiency unlikely. Therefore, such a high amount of potassium is unnecessary in a sports drink.
Watermelon juice has been a topic of recent sports nutrition research due to its high citrulline content. Cirtulline is a precursor for nitric oxide (NO), which has been thought to enhance oxygen and nutrient delivery to the muscles during athletic activity. There has not been much research on this topic, but one study did find watermelon juice ineffective in improving exercise performance.

However, watermelon juice will help to alleviate muscle soreness. Overall, watermelon juice is hydrating, provides adequate amounts of potassium and carbohydrates, with the added bonus of easing muscle soreness. But, it does not miraculously boost athletic performance, nor does it help replace any of the sodium lost in sweat. It’s definitely not a drink for the competitive athlete.


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I’m Natalie Rizzo, an NYC-based Registered Dietitian.

My mission is to help everyday athletes fuel their fitness with plants.

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