Electrolyte drinks are popular among athletes and people who exercise intensely. But why do electrolyte drinks have sugar?
Electrolyte drinks provide a quick and effective way to replenish lost nutrients and stay hydrated during intense workouts.
What is sugar and why is it important for performance?
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate that provides energy for your muscles and brain. When you eat or drink sugar, it is broken down into glucose, which is the main fuel source for your cells.
Additionally, your muscles store glucose in your muscles and liver as glycogen, which can be used later when you need more energy.
When you exercise for more than an hour, especially at high intensity, you use up your glycogen stores and need to replenish them to avoid hitting the wall or bonking. This is when you feel exhausted, weak and unable to continue. (1)
Sugar can help you avoid this by providing a quick source of energy that can be used immediately by your muscles and brain.
Sugar also helps increase water absorption, which speeds up how quickly you rehydrate. When you drink a solution that has more sugar than your blood (such as an electrolyte drink), water moves from your blood to your gut to balance the concentration. (2)
What are electrolytes and why are they important for hydration?
Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electric charge.They balance the amount of water in your body, control your blood pressure, maintain the pH level of your blood and support your nerve and muscle function.
Some of the common electrolytes in your body are sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and chloride. When you sweat, you lose electrolytes along with water.
To prevent these symptoms, it’s important to replenish your electrolytes by drinking fluids that contain them. Electrolyte drinks are one way to do that. They provide water and minerals that help restore your fluid balance and prevent dehydration.
You can also get electrolytes from various foods and drinks, such as fruits, vegetables, dairy products, nuts, seeds salty foods like pretzels.
How do electrolyte drinks combine electrolytes and sugar to enhance hydration and performance?
Electrolyte drinks are formulated to quickly replenish lost electrolytes and rebalance your system, especially after intense physical activity lasting more than 60 minutes .
They contain water, electrolytes and sugar in specific amounts that allow for optimal hydration and absorption.
The amount of sugar in electrolyte drinks is usually between 6% and 8% of the total volume. This is the ideal range that maximizes water absorption without causing stomach aches or slowing down gastric emptying (the rate it takes fluids to leave your stomach).
Electrolyte drinks also provide carbohydrates that help replenish glycogen stores and prevent fatigue.
The recommended amount of carbohydrate intake during prolonged exercise is between 30 and 60 grams per hour. You can get this amount by drinking about 500 to 1000 milliliters of an electrolyte drink per hour, depending on the concentration of sugar in the drink.
By drinking electrolyte drinks during exercise, you can prevent dehydration, maintain fluid balance, support normal muscle contractions, enhance endurance, and delay exhaustion.
How do electrolyte drinks compare with other fluids?
Electrolyte drinks are not the only option for hydration and performance. You can also drink water, juice, or soda depending on your needs and preferences. However, each beverage has its advantages and disadvantages.
- Water: Water is the simplest and most accessible beverage for hydration. It has no calories, no sugar and no side effects. It is suitable for most people and most situations.
However, water alone may not be enough to prevent dehydration or support performance if you sweat a lot or exercise for a long time. You may need to add some salt or eat some snacks to replace the electrolytes and carbohydrates you lose.
- Juice: Juice is a natural source of water, sugar, vitamins, antioxidants, and some electrolytes (mainly potassium). It can provide some energy and hydration benefits if consumed in moderation.
But, juice also has a higher concentration of sugar and may cause stomach upset especially if you drink it during exercise. Juice also has a low sodium content, which may not be enough to replace the sodium you lose through sweat.
How to use electrolyte drinks effectively?
Electrolyte drinks can be beneficial for hydration and performance if used correctly. Here are some practical tips on how to use them effectively:
Know your sweat rate
Your sweat rate is the amount of fluid you lose through sweat per hour of exercise. It depends on many factors, such as your body size, fitness level, exercise intensity, temperature, humidity and clothing.
You can estimate your sweat rate by weighing yourself before and after exercise and subtracting the weight difference. You can also use our online sweat rate calculator to estimate your sweat rate.
Drink according to your needs
Your fluid needs depend on your sweat rate, exercise duration, intensity, and environmental conditions. You should drink enough to prevent dehydration (more than 2% of body weight loss) but not overhydration.
You should have a plan to hydrate throughout the day and before, during and after games and practices.
Choose the right electrolyte drink
The type of electrolyte drink you choose depends on your goals, preferences and availability. If you are exercising for less than an hour at moderate intensity under normal weather conditions, water is usually sufficient to keep you hydrated.
When you exercise for more than an hour at high intensity or under hot or humid conditions, electrolyte drinks may be more beneficial to prevent dehydration, maintain electrolyte balance, and enhance performance.
Experiment with different flavors and brands
Electrolyte drinks come in various flavors and brands that may differ in their ingredients, concentrations and tastes. You should experiment with different options to find the ones that suit your taste buds and stomach.
It’s also a good idea to check the nutrition labels and ingredient lists to make sure they do not contain any allergens or additives that you are sensitive or allergic to.
Make your own electrolyte drink
If you want to save money or customize your electrolyte drink, you can make your own at home using simple ingredients.
A basic recipe to make 1 L of a homemade electrolyte drink is to mix four cups of water, half a teaspoon of salt, 2 tsp sugar (or honey) and one cup of fruit juice. You can adjust the amounts according to your taste and needs.
Electrolyte drinks have sugar because sugar helps with hydration, performance and recovery. Sugar provides energy for your muscles and brain, enhances water absorption and replenishes glycogen stores that are used up during exercise.
Electrolyte drinks can be beneficial if used correctly. You should know your sweat rate, drink according to your needs, choose the right beverage, experiment with different flavors and brands, or make your own electrolyte drink.
We hope this post has answered your question about why do electrolyte drinks have sugar and helped you understand the science behind sports hydration.
Join our mailing list and get our FREE Pre-Activity Fueling Guide.
Steph Magill, MS, RD, CD, FAND has over 22 years of experience in public health and nutrition. As a performance registered dietitian nutritionist, Stephanie specializes in sports nutrition and provides simple and actionable information so that athletes can be well fueled for high performance on and off the field. Stephanie has a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.