Minnow info

Sports Drinks vs. Energy Drinks

by Dick Brewer
first published in the August, 2006, Florida LMSC newsletter

Companies spend millions of dollars in advertising trying to convince athletes that a particular drink will provide energy/power/endurance/recovery and will be the miracle drink that athletes seek.

Is it hype and wishful thinking? And how does the average person who is not a nutritionist or sports physiologist make an intelligent choice about what to use?

There are big differences between energy drinks and sports drinks.


Energy drink contain stimulants, primarily caffeine and sugar, which give a temporary boost to performance. Because caffeine concentration in the blood peaks about 2-4 hours after consumption, the caffeine boost is usually maximized if the beverage is drunk 1-2 hours prior to the start of an endurance activity. Energy drinks don't make a big difference in short events.

Caffeine also acts as a diuretic, causing kidneys to pull more water out of the bloodstream than the digestive system can pull into the system from the drink (one-step-forward-two-steps-back). So energy drinks should NOT be used during exercise because the combination of fluid loss from sweating and the diuretic quality of the caffeine can lead to severe dehydration.

Energy drinks are not bad, but they shouldn't be viewed as the drinks of champions. Claims they make such as "improved performance and concentration" can be misleading. Think of them as highly-caffeinated drinks to get a better idea of what they are and how they affect you.


Sports drinks are the most appropriate hydration fluid during strenuous activity. They contain no stimulants, only carbohydrate and salts to replace those lost in sweat.

As the body and muscles work, they heat up. Releasing moisture (sweat) is one way the body tries to cool itself. Many swimmers aren't aware that they sweat in the pool, because the pool is already full of water. But it happens, and that creates the possibility of dehydration, which in turn negatively affects performance.

The ideal sports drink should be non-caffeinated and contain some carbohydrates, sodium, and potassium. A sports drink helps replace carbohydrates and electrolytes and is better at minimizing the possibility of dehydration than water alone.

Because the sense of thirst is slow to react to dehydration, drink up to 12 oz. of the sports drink about 15 minutes before the activity begins. While exercising, take frequent small drinks rather than gulping large ones to best replace the fluid lost as sweat.


Energy drinks can be taken prior to physical activities but never during the activity. Sports drinks are designed to be taken during the activity.

Test a drink well before a meet because what one competitor finds beneficial can cause disastrous side effects for another. Each individual reacts differently.

One way to figure out what and how much works best is to test drinks at practices. Try sets of 100's, drink, take a 5-10 minute break, and swim more sets. Or swim through the events that might be swum at a meet; drink after each event, wait 5-10 minutes, and swim the next event.

The time to experiment with anything new is at practices, not at meets.

Remember: staying hydrated is critical. Use energy drinks only well before a meet, and use sports drinks at the meet.

Comparisons of selected drinks based on their nutrition labels

Amounts here are per can/bottle while amounts on labels are for a typical 8 oz. serving. Many drinks are available. Read labels and test them to find the one right for you.

in grams

in mg.

NON-CAFFEINATED protein carbs fat sugar potass. sodium calories oz/can
V8 Fusion 1 42 0 41 290 105 170 12
Gatorade 0 35 0 35 75 275 100 20
McArthur Famrs 1% Milk 16 24 10 24 800 250 260 16
Propel Fitness Water 0 6 0 4 0 0 23 17
Powerade Option 0 5 0 5 88 125 25 20
CAFFEINATED protein carbs fat sugar potass. sodium calories oz/can
SoBe NoFear Energy 2 72 0 66 50 230 260 16
Extreme Energy Shot 0 60 0 58 0 50 240 16
Red Bull 0 29 0 18 0 208 114 8.3
Monster Energy 0 6 0 6 0 20 20 16
Rockstar Energy 2 4 0 0 0 280 20 16
Diet Coke (defizzed) 0 0 0 0 0 60 0 12

Caffeine Examples (in mg)

A cup of brewed coffee 135   Diet Coke (12 oz) 47
average for most energy drinks 80 Coke (12 oz) 45
Starbucks Coffee Ice Cream (1 cup) 60 Pepsi (12 oz) 37
Mountain Dew (12 oz) 55 Hershey's Milk Chocolate Bar 10