Walk into any athletic facility, gym, or even gas station and you will most likely find someone sipping on a sports drink. Sports drinks are extremely popular and there are more and more types appearing on store shelves every month—but do they work? Which one should you use? How can you best use them to maximize your performance on the court? Even though there are many different brands of sports drinks, they all fall under three main categories: carbohydrate and electrolytes, carbohydrates and stimulants, and carbohydrates and protein.
Carbohydrates & Electrolytes: These are the “classic” sports drinks like Gatorade and PowerAde. These drinks contain 15-20 grams of carbohydrates per serving in addition to sodium and potassium. These drinks are essentially formulated to mimic the nutrient make-up of sweat—with the addition of sugar—as they were originally designed to replace the nutrients that you lost via sweat while exercising, while at the same time providing sugar to replenish the carbohydrates stored in your muscles.
Carbohydrates & Stimulants: This group of drinks is usually talked about as energy drinks and not sports drinks but more and more athletes are turning to them. The hallmark drinks in this category are Red Bull and Monster. The main functional components of these drinks are sugar and caffeine. While different drinks will contain their own blend of B-vitamins, herbs, and vitamins, the impact of these components on your performance is largely untested and most likely minimal. Caffeine has been shown to improve athletic performance and mental focus. However, I do not recommend that young athletes turn to caffeine for these enhancements but instead adopt a regular sleep schedule, to reap the same benefits and many more. Certain regulatory organizations have different guidelines regarding caffeine consumption and it is important to know and understand these before turning to caffeine for performance enhancement.
Carbohydrates & Protein: This is the newest class of sports drinks, designed based on the most recent sports nutrition research. The most widely marketed product in this group is the Gatorade G Series Recovery drink; however, I have had my clients making their own version of this drink for years by combining regular Gatorade or PowerAde with 1/2 of a scoop of whey protein powder. The homemade option will give you similar results while also proving to be the most cost effective solution. Having a sports drink that contains both carbohydrates and protein gives you distinct performance advantages when drinking 1-2 hours following your training.
Regardless of which category of sports drink you or your athletes choose to consume, the timing of the drinks is the same—centered on exercise. While sports drinks were initially developed in 1965 for collegiate football players practicing twice a day in the hot Florida sun, they have grown so much in popularity that you will find them taking up as much shelf space as the sodas in your local gas station. It is important to know that sports drinks are a double-edged sword; when used correctly they can improve your performance, help you recover faster, and help you build lean muscle; but when used incorrectly they have the nutritional impact of Kool-Aid, providing you only with empty calories. If you are serious about playing at your best, having a sport drink following an intense practice or game should be as much of a requirement as taking a shower. If you are going to be exercising intensely for more than one hour then having one before your exercise and sipping it throughout your training would also be beneficial and help you maintain a high level of performance throughout. If you are lounging on the couch watching volleyball, skip the sports drinks entirely and reach for a glass of water.
Muscle Energy Replenishment: - During volleyball games or practices your body uses the sugars stored in your muscles (called glycogen) as a major source of fuel. Your ability to replenish those glycogen stores will have a significant impact on your performance in upcoming games and practices. Having a carbohydrate and protein sports drink after exercising allows for maximum refilling of your glycogen stores in the shortest amount of time. Research from the University of Western Ontario also shows that the addition of protein to your carbohydrate based sports drink makes this replenishment process work even better.
Preventing Muscle Breakdown: - Playing volleyball is intense. It requires a lot from your body to perform at your best. Unfortunately, this high level of physical intensity can result in the breaking down of your hard-earned muscle. Fortunately, the proper timing of a sports drink can help prevent you from losing too much, if any. Research from Charles Sturt University in Australia shows that both carbohydrate-only and carbohydrate-plus protein sports drinks can reduce biochemical markers of muscle loss by over 50 percent with the carbohydrate plus protein drinks having the greatest effect.
Perform and Look Better
The sports drink combination of protein and carbohydrates will not only improve your recovery and help you perform better but it will also make you look better. The protein/carbohydrate sports drink combination has been shown to yield the greatest improvements in body composition as well. In one study, after 12 weeks of using a protein and carbohydrate sports drink, participants lost 4 lbs of body fat while simultaneously gaining almost 9 pounds of muscle. The participants who only had a carbohydrate sports drink lost the same amount of weight but gained 3 less pounds of muscle.
Originally published in February 2011