Sports drinks geared more toward intense activity

You’re headed to the gym or for a bike ride after work. Should you sip a sports drink before, guzzle it afterward or stick with water?

Sports drinks: A July 26 article in the Health section on sports drinks incorrectly referred to Boston area sports nutrition consultant Nancy Clark as Nancy Carter. —

The answer, according to sports nutrition experts, is … it depends.

These drinks — Accelerade, Gatorade, Gatorade G, PowerAde, Pure Sport and more — provide water for hydration, energy in the form of carbohydrates and electrolytes that help the body retain fluids. Their ingredients are calibrated to meet the needs of athletes.

“These are sports drinks — they’re not for sipping at your desk,” says Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Sports drinks are mostly water, important for any active individual, whether a competitive athlete or fitness hobbyist. But a person’s need for the added ingredients in the drinks (typically sodium, potassium and sugar, and, in so-called recovery drinks, protein) varies depending on how hot it is outside and how long and how intense a workout is, says Michael Bergeron, director of the National Institute for Athletic Health and Performance at the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls.

Sports drinks typically provide about 15 to 18 grams of sugar in every 8-ounce serving. But for the average workout, people who are eating three square meals a day don’t need the extra calories those carbs provide, says Boston area sports nutrition consultant Nancy Carter, the author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook.

“Sports drinks are for an hour to an hour-and-a-half or more of hard exercise, like a 100-mile bike ride or a 10-mile run,” she says.

The electrolytes sodium and potassium help keep a body hydrated, but most people don’t become depleted in either mineral during a moderate workout, Carter says: Sodium is already abundant in the American diet, and potassium is plentiful in lots of fruits and vegetables.

That may not apply to everyone. Most people working out for fitness (as opposed to professional competition) lose 500 to 1,000 milligrams of sodium per hour, which the standard American diet easily makes up for. But some people, Bergeron says, lose much more. For such “salty sweaters” (a telltale sign is abundant dried salt on the skin after a workout), sports drinks can be a boon, he says. A 32-ounce bottle of Gatorade G2, for instance, provides 440 milligrams of sodium.

Sports drinks marketed specifically for recovery (such as Gatorade’s G3) usually contain protein in addition to carbohydrates and electrolytes. A combination of protein and carbs is key for rebuilding muscle after a workout, Bergeron says, but most people — are you beginning to see a pattern here? — can get all the protein they need by eating after a workout. For those who are exercising repeatedly without stopping for meals — playing in a soccer tournament, say, or training for a triathlon or participating in a relay — recovery drinks can fill the gaps, he says.

Sports drinks also contain a sometimes overlooked ingredient: flavoring. Bonci points out that it isn’t just the electrolytes in sports drinks that combat dehydration — it’s also the taste, which may encourage people to drink more fluids than they would if it were only water. In fact, several studies have shown that children who play sports don’t tend to drink as much water as their bodies need unless that water is flavored. In a Canadian study published in 2007 in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, girls who were given the option of drinking grape-flavored water drank about 25% to 40% more during exercise than girls who drank plain water. “Hydration is important, but not everyone does a great job of it, and not everyone loves water alone,” Bonci says.

For those who don’t mind the taste of water but do want to ensure they’re at their best during hard workouts, Carter emphasizes that there’s nothing magical about sports drinks. Their effects can be mimicked with whole foods, which contain a host of additional nutrients and can be cheaper too. She recommends snacking on water plus raisins, pretzels, Fig Newtons or orange sections. “I always encourage my clients to have more oranges than orange-colored Gatorade,” she says.

That said, it’s hard to peel an orange while riding a bike — so sports drinks are, if anything, convenient.

The bottom line: Sports drinks provide the most value to people who are exercising intensely or for those who lose a lot of salt when they work out.

For everyone else, Bonci says, “if you’re just doing a half-hour of exercise, water is just fine.”