Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
The other day I was interviewed by a reporter for the Detroit Free Press on the topic of sports drinks. One of his questions concerned the difference between sports drinks and energy drinks. At first I thought it was a question he asked just to hear my answer, already knowing the answer himself. But a follow-up question revealed that the journalist was genuinely confused about the difference between the two categories, and even uncertain about whether there was a difference. Figuring he probably wasn’t the only one, I’ve decided to answer the question again here.
Sports drinks are easy to define. They are beverages formulated specifically for use during exercise and for the sake of enhancing exercise performance. Even though more than 99 percent of the two most popular sports drinks are not consumed in the exercise context, they are in fact intended for that context.
Energy drinks are a more amorphous category. They are a hybrid of lifestyle beverages and functional beverages. Like other soft drinks, they provide refreshment and flavor at meals, between meals, whenever. But they also contain functional ingredients—mainly caffeine—to provide perceptions of wakefulness and energy for whenever they are needed.
Many consumers, I think, assume that the formulations of sports drinks and energy drinks are more or less the same. While they are certainly more similar than coffee and milk, there are important differences. Sports drinks contain moderate amounts of mixed carbohydrate to maximize energy supply to working muscles while minimizing the risk of causing GI distress, which can happen all too easily when the stomach is overloaded during exercise. Sports drinks also contain sodium and other electrolyte minerals to replace those lost in sweat.
The typical energy drink contains significantly more carbohydrate and calories than the typical sports drink and gets most or all of those carbs and calories from one or two sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup (a blend of fructose and glucose). For example, Red Bull contains 26 grams of carbs, all sugar, per 8.3-oz serving, while Gatorade contains 16 g of carbs per 8-oz. serving, of which 13 g are sugar. Because of their higher carbohydrate concentration and their heavy use of fructose, energy drinks are much more likely than sports drinks to cause stomach upset during exercise. Many energy drinks are also carbonated, further increasing the associated risk of GI distress.
Nevertheless, some energy drinks may enhance exercise performance, just as sports drinks do. That’s because the water and carbs they provide are better than nothing, and also because they contain caffeine, which is ergogenic. The best use of energy drinks in relation to exercise may be as a sort of neuromuscular primer before a workout. The large influx of glucose into the blood stream, and of caffeine to the brain, that energy drinks administer will make you feel like really getting after it. This was shown in a recent study by Iranian researchers, who compared the effects of two energy drinks, Red Bull and Hype, to the effects of flavored water on exercise performance when consumed immediately before exercise. Maximal oxygen consumption and time to exhaustion were significantly greater after either of the energy drinks was consumed.
It’s interesting that, while caffeine is well known to boost exercise performance, most sports drinks do not contain it, while most energy drinks do. It’s just as well that most sports drinks don’t have caffeine, however, because the ergogenic effects of caffeine disappear with habituation. So a sports drink with caffeine would work really well for you the first time you used it, not quite as well the second time, etc. But while the caffeine in any sports drink you used regularly would cease to boost your performance, its psychological effects would persist. There’s something to be said for taking caffeine before a big workout just for the sake of feeling readier to work out, even if it doesn’t make you go faster or last longer.
The immense popularity of energy drinks and the widespread use of caffeine by athletes has started many sports drink company executives to thinking. The result has been the recent emergence of a new sports nutrition category of pre-workout primers. Currently, most such products are marketed to bodybuilders, who are notoriously supplement happy and who like to show up at the gym ready to bite the heads off bats. But the category is expanding into mainstream and endurance sports. The recent introduction of Gatorade 01 Prime (which does not contain caffeine) will certainly pave the way for others to follow.