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Health & Fitness
Do You Know What's In Your Sports Drink?
Allison Van Dusen, 08.08.07, 12:01 AM ET

You're in the middle of a 30-minute workout at the local gym, and you're parched. Should you pop open a Cytomax or a bottle of water?

Experts in sports nutrition say before you decide what to down, it's worth thinking twice about the length of your workout, the conditions you're exercising in and your intensity level.

"If you're working out 30 minutes a day, you don't need a sports drink," says John Ivy, chairman of the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin. "You're probably trying to maintain or lose weight, so you don't need those extra calories."

Quiz: Do You Know What's In Your Sports Drink?

In fact, Ivy and most other experts recommend simply drinking water to keep your body going during workouts under an hour. The American Council On Exercise, a nonprofit organization that promotes safe and effective physical activity, suggests consuming at least four to 10 ounces, or a cup, every 15 minutes to refuel.

It's when you work out, or perform strenuous activities under a hot sun (such as mowing the lawn), for more than an hour that your body might want and need more than water.

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Watered Down
Research has shown that at times like these, sports drinks, which are basically mixtures of water and carbohydrates, can significantly boost endurance compared to water alone, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world.

That's because, during an intense, lengthy workout session, you're likely to deplete the carbohydrate stores, or glycogen, your muscles use as fuel. The recommended carbohydrate concentration in a sports drink is somewhere between 4% to 9%, or 13 to 19 grams of carbs per eight ounces. Gatorade and Powerade fit the bill.

Unlike water, sports drinks can also help replace electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, which the body loses through sweat. The right balance of sodium can affect your muscle function. It can also rehydrate you faster, says Jeffrey Stout, president of the International Society of Sports Nutrition and an assistant professor in exercise physiology at the University of Oklahoma.

You Want Protein With That?
While still a debatable subject, some advocate that athletes seek a sports drink containing both carbohydrates and protein.

Critics of protein as a sports drink ingredient say that it will slow the rate at which the body absorbs fluid--the opposite of what you're trying to achieve by drinking up. But a 2004 independent, small study led by Michael Saunders of James Madison University and published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed that sports drinks with protein helped highly trained athletes exercise longer with less muscle damage. Given protein's potential pluses, Jose Antonio, CEO of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, says choosing between a carb drink and a carb and protein drink, such as Accelerade, should be a no-brainer for consumers.

However, since it's not fully understood exactly how protein improves athletes' endurance, experts such as Ivy say more research needs to be done to substantiate that consuming protein during exercise is beneficial. In the meantime, the choice is yours.

The Big Race
For people preparing for a race, such as a marathon, consuming the right mix of water and sports drinks is particularly crucial for hydration and performance, says Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist and research scientist with the Genesis Wellness Group and a consultant for the American Council on Exercise.

Comana suggests sipping on a carbohydrate sports drink in the 15 to 30 minutes before the event starts. It'll top off your tank, and activation of your body's nervous system during your warm up will prevent a sugar crash.

Athletes also should focus on putting 40 to 60 grams of carbs into their bodies per hour, an amount that will keep them fueled but not exceed their stomachs' emptying rates, he says. Overdo it, and you'll feel liquid sloshing around during your run.

And, this may sound obvious, but if you do need a sports drink, make sure you choose a flavor you like. You'll probably drink more of it, which could make a difference in your results--and naturally, you'll enjoy it more, too.

Quiz: Do You Know What's In Your Sports Drink?

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