Proper hydration is essential for peak performance.
© Juan Ocampo
There is no question about it—proper hydration is essential for peak performance on the court, but there are lots of questions about exactly what you should drink to stay hydrated. The grocery store shelves are packed with liquids that promise to improve your game. With the dizzying array of choices, it can be difficult to sort out what you truly need to fuel your game. Below is a guide to help you wade through your choices.
What’s in a sports drink?
Traditional sports drinks contain three main ingredients: water, carbohydrates, and electrolytes.
1. Water is the main ingredient; it replaces the fluid you lose during exercise and keeps you hydrated.
2. The carbohydrates come in various concentrations and combinations of simple (sucrose, glucose, and fructose) and complex (maltodextrins) depending on the brand of sports drink. The carbs are typically the sole source of calories; they provide fuel for your muscles and brain. Sports drinks contain a range of calories, from about 6 to 12 per ounce. The optimal carbohydrate concentration for a sports drink is between 6 and 8 percent.
3. Electrolytes, such as sodium, are found in varying amounts in different brands. These ions have two functions in a sports drink. Primarily, they help to speed up the rate at which your body absorbs water. They also help to replace the electrolytes lost through sweat. Many tennis players sweat more than 2.5 liters per hour and lose substantial sodium, so sports drinks become an important part of match fluid/electrolyte balance and post-match recovery. Typical sports drinks contain 50 to 110 milligrams of sodium per 8 ounce serving.
What about protein?
There is a great debate afoot about whether adding a bit of protein to a sports drink will improve its effectiveness. Other than improving the efficiency of rehydration, most studies haven’t proven any benefit to this additional ingredient, but that hasn’t stopped some companies from promoting special formulations of sports drinks with added protein. While there seems to be no harm in choosing one of these varieties, it’s important to know that—to date—there isn’t a proven benefit either.
When do I need a sports drink?
Sports drinks should not be considered a source of daily hydration; these drinks are primarily intended to fuel you during a long match. You should incorporate a sports drink into your fueling plan when you are on the court for more than one hour or if you are playing in extremely hot or humid conditions. Otherwise, water is sufficient.
In some cases, people have trouble eating solid foods before or immediately following exercise. If that is true for you, sports drinks can also provide a source of easily digestible pre- or post-workout carbs. If you are playing more than one match per day, or repetitive matches one day after another, sports drinks are an important part of recovery and rehydration, especially in warm and humid conditions.
I’m worried about calories, should I choose a low-cal variety?
If you’re looking for a more flavorful alternative to water during a short session (i.e., less than an hour) you could give one of these a try. But remember, diet sports drinks are not formulated the same as the traditional variety; therefore, they will not elicit the same performance benefits. If you’re playing hard for an hour or more, don’t worry about the extra calories a traditional sports drink contains. Those calories are in there for a reason; they provide the fuel you need to perform at your best.
Which sports drink is best?
In the end, the drink that is best for you is a matter of preference. While there are some general guidelines to help you make a selection, there is not one variety that provides a significant performance boost over the others. Sample a few different varieties until you find one that tastes good and works for you. Or, consider making your own. Try this recipe
from sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD.
Sports Drink Tips:
1. Calculate the carbohydrate concentration: To determine the carbohydrate concentration of your favorite sports drink, divide the number of grams of carb in an 8 ounce serving by 240. Then multiply by 100.
2. Keep it cold: Warm sports drinks can taste bad and be difficult to drink. Make sure yours stays cold; keep a bottle of sports drink in a cooler on the bench. Aim to drink 5 – 10 ounces at each change-over.
3. Avoid cramps: Cramps may be a sign that you need more fluid and sodium. If you regularly suffer from cramps during exercise, try adding ½ teaspoon of salt to 32 ounces of sports drink. Or look for an "endurance" formula sports drink—it will contain more sodium than a typical sports drink.