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Shelves with rows of rainbow colored sports drinks and powdered hydration packs are a common site at climbing gyms. Strewn across mats with shoes and chalk bags are Arctic Bliss and Glacier Cherry flavored beverages, meant to give you that needed boost on sweaty nights.
But really, do sports drinks actually help sports performance? Or are they an unnecessary burden on your wallet and health?
The real benefit of sports drinks is electrolytes, or the more commonly used four letter word: salt. Salt represents the focal point of both negative and positive attention— too much causes hypertension and a slew of common life-threatening diseases. Too little causes cramps, fatigue and weakness. But because everyone is different and has varying salt needs, recommendations for what is actually the right amount should be taken with, well, a grain of salt.
“A lot of sports nutrition practices directly contradict what we know about positive health practices,” said Dr. Ted Weiss in an interview with Outside. Weiss is a St. Louis University nutrition and dietetics professor. “Just because something makes you run faster doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Cocaine does that too, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”
And what we do know about positive health practices: A little salt goes a long way. Current FDA recommendations cap daily salt intake at 2,300 milligrams per day— that’s about 1 ⅛ teaspoons of salt. Most professionals, however, will say that the average American should be getting a maximum of 1,500 milligrams per day. And the actual average U.S. daily salt consumption? 3,400 milligrams per day.
Athletes do need more salt than the general population. They sweat more, burn more calories and need more fuel. Mary Jane Detroyer, a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist and personal trainer, told Self “that when we perform light exercise in a dry, cool environment, we’re likely to lose only about 250 milliliters of fluid an hour, whereas if we exercise in a hot, humid environment, we can lose two or even three liters an hour.”
Still, according to Weiss, most athletes get sufficient amounts of salt from the normal food they eat. Someone spending a long day at the crag is likely to eat an extra sandwich or snack, which provides the extra sodium. Plus, the 2,300 milligram recommendation is generous, so athletes are already getting extra salt.
So do we need sports drinks? The answer is no, especially if you’re eating out a lot or buying a lot of processed foods. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 70% of the sodium Amercians consume comes from processed and restaurant foods. One McDonald’s Big Mac, for example, contains 1,007 milligrams of sodium. Add in the fries and a drink and you’ve already met the limits of what most experts believe is plenty.
“Sports drinks may be a convenient option, but the salt content is generally less than optimal,” said Ron Maughan, Ph.D., in an interview with Self. Maughan is an emeritus professor of sport and exercise nutrition at Loughborough University in the U.K.
Instead of a sports drink with excess sugar and calories, go for water and a snack or meal with sodium. You’ll get more micronutrients that way and likely save a few bucks.