In 1965 the medical experts overseeing the University of Florida’s football team realized they had an issue on their hands. Florida is scorchingly hot, miserably humid, and football is a tremendously taxing sport. Heatstroke and heat exhaustion plagued the team. They needed help.
This is the origin story of Gatorade, named for the football team it was invented to help; the Gators. The electrolytes present in the drink helped supply vital sodium and carbs to players who would otherwise be fainting on the field.
… but does that mean you need it?
It’s About Time
Here’s a general rule of thumb to consider. If you are working out for less than 60 minutes, a sports drink will do more harm than good. Why? Mostly calories.
Sports drinks are designed to get much needed carbohydrates and sodium into your muscles as fast as possible. If you don’t need those extra calories, then they’re just that: extra. You’re better off with water.
Another aspect to consider is when to drink during your workout. Some experts suggest that you fuel up with a portion of your sports drink before working out, to give the nutrients time to get into your system. You should then continue taking sips as you need them to rehydrate throughout. Waiting until the end of a long workout to guzzle a drink all at once might not be any more beneficial than water.
Lastly, consider where you are between meals. If you’ve eaten within the last few hours, and plan to eat again after your workout, you may not need a sports drink. However, if you’re working out just after waking up, or before going to bed, sports drinks can help power you through.
It’s About Intensity
Now we’re going to offer an exception to our first rule. Super high intensity workouts can benefit from sports drinks, even if they’re well under 60 minutes. Exercises that require a large output of power on your part, such as power lifting, sprinting, or some fast calisthenics might cause you to rapidly lose both water and salt through sweat. A sports drink will replenish that.
Then again, if you’re doing very light exercise, even for more than 60 minutes, you might be back on the losing side of sports drinks. Walking is great exercise, and if you’re taking 70, or 80 minute walks, you should still do so, but water will be better for you before, during and after that walk.
It’s About Climate
As stated before, Gatorade was born on a muggy and hot Florida football field. Working out in hot or humid environments leads to more sweat, which leads to more fluid and salt loss. On the other hand, a serious workout in the cold might not lead you to sweat much at all.
Here’s the bottom line: nobody is a better judge of your personal needs than you. If you begin feeling thirsty, lightheaded, crampy, or overheated you might be experiencing dehydration and electrolyte loss. A sports drink can help you bounce back from that (as can rest, and shade).
These are general guidelines, not rules. If you feel that sports drinks noticeably improve your workout duration and output, then they’re being put to good use. If not, then stick to water.