Do Sports Drinks Improve Running Performance?

The rise of the sports drink industry has been astonishing and shows little sign of slowing. Every race I attend seems to have a new drink manufacturer in attendance, keen to tell me why I should drink their product over another competitor – they no longer bother telling me why I should drink a sports drink instead of water; that’s surely common knowledge by now. The industry is worth around £260m in the UK alone and has been the fastest-growing soft drinks sector for years. The US market is set to hit a staggering $2bn by 2016. There seem to be two messages freely given out by the industry, and I believe that these have both been embedded in the mind of most runners who accept them as truth:

1) We can’t rely on our thirst to tell when to drink.

2) Sports drinks are better for our performance than water. Being Mad.

The Gatorade Sports Science Institute has declared: “The human thirst mechanism is an inaccurate short-term indicator of fluid needs… there is no clear physiological signal that dehydration is occurring,” On their website, Poweraid makes a similar statement: “Without realizing, you may not be drinking enough to restore your fluid balance after working out.” Sports drinks contain sodium which, we are told, helps stimulate our thirst – thus tricking the body into retaining more liquid than it otherwise would. This is good because our body doesn’t know it is about to exercise hard and needs more fluid than it thinks. This claim is upheld by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

So far, so good for the sports drinks. However, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has been seen to take a stand against the industry, stating that the studies on which the EFSA based their knowledge were fundamentally floored. The sports drinks industry funded them, and the studies were based on findings for elite athletes and not the average runner. The BMJ reviewed 431 scientific claims made by sports drinks companies and, amazingly, found that only 3, less than 1%, were based on studies of a ‘good’ standard. For me, this is startling.



Having looked into the dangers of dehydration before running my first marathon, I came across more serious stories getting a lot less press, which seemed to tell me that drinking too much liquid is the real danger. Cynthia Lucero ran the Boston Marathon in 2002; tragically, she collapsed after around 22 miles and died of hyponatremia – excess fluid consumption. Hew et al. (2003) reported 21 cases of hyponatremia at the 2000 Houston Marathon, although thankfully, none were fatal. I have still not found a confirmed marathon runner death from dehydration. It appears that dehydration as a real problem to runners has been used as a scaremongering tactic by the sports drinks manufacturers; this is a common occurrence in healthcare – if you can produce a product with which to cure a fake illness, you first have to convince people that they are ill.

It took me a long time to realize that the intense headaches I suffered after long runs were due to my over-drinking fluids. This is a very worrying sign. If you suffer from headaches after a run, you may need to look at your fluid intake before, during, and after the exercise and potentially cut it back to only drinking when you feel thirsty. The early 1990′s saw the sports drink manufacturers move into selling science in a big way. There were large donations to universities and sponsoring scientific events and forums. At least in part, they aimed to introduce sports drinks as the fluid of choice for exercise, replacing water. They needed people to think that sports drinks would improve performance compared with water alone to make this possible.

I questioned this for the first time when Lucozade told park run that “water alone isn’t enough to maintain hydration.” Now, parkrun is a 5km run which is undertaken by (on the whole) ‘normal’ people; surely water alone is enough to maintain hydration over such a short race, it’s all I drink at park run, and I’ve never had a problem, I’m sure that water is enough to maintain hydration. I also don’t believe that dehydration is the problem that Lucozade is making it out to be.

I looked into this in more detail and came across this article. It points out several issues with the research performed on sports drinks over the last forty years, some of which is startling – including manipulation of the nutrition of subjects to distort results of trials, a lack of ‘blind’ problems, so the people performing the research could have, inadvertently or not, influenced the results. The more I read, the more I believe I’m better off drinking water and eating good-quality carbohydrates before and after exercise. It’s still up to you; if you think that the drink is giving you an edge, then maybe it will, but I think it’s important to understand that science may not back up the claims of sports drinks manufacturers at all times – even if there is a study to point to which appears to do so.