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Sports drinks like Gatorade hydrate better than water

Posted: Wednesday July 19, 2006 1:17PM; Updated: Wednesday July 19, 2006 1:17PM
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Gatorade accounts for 80 percent of all sales in the sports drink industry.
Gatorade accounts for 80 percent of all sales in the sports drink industry.
Harry How/Harry How

By Chad Konecky, Special to SI.com, SchoolSports.com

The shelves of any local library are jammed with tales of desert survival. Stories -- both truth and fiction -- that confirm a centuries-old principle:

Water is life.

If the contents of those bookshelves prove anything, they prove that genuine thirst optimally quenched can transform the thirsty. But thanks to modern science, it's becoming increasingly evident that in the sports world, not all thirst quenchers are created equal. What's more, it looks like water is, by comparison, ill-equipped to transform an athlete at risk of suffering from dehydration during competition.

"Sports drinks keep you drinking more and for longer and allow you to replenish fluid a lot more quickly," says Penn State University professor W. Larry Kenney, a former president of the American College of Sports Medicine. "If you're exercising in excess of an hour or over a prolonged period of time, like preseason football two-a-days, there is a significant advantage to drinking sports drinks. That's because the sodium in sports drinks keeps your thirst active and the carbohydrates replenish your fuel.

"Thirst isn't a good indicator of how much water you've lost," Kenney adds. "If you drink water until you're not thirsty, you're probably not meeting your need."

The folks at Gatorade have pretty much banked on that being true for more than 40 years.

There are now a variety of sports drinks formulated to replenish what athletes sweat out during prolonged, intense activity. But Gatorade is the original. In fact, ESPN.com sports business writer Darren Rovell's new book about the Gatorade phenomenon is actually entitled First in Thirst.

Gatorade's own national survey data shows that most Gatorade drinkers have no idea the thirst quencher celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2005. Not surprisingly, given that longevity, the product dominates the sports drink market, owning 80 percent of the sales.

These days, the company that gave athletes their first performance-sustaining alternative to water now tweaks the drink's formula and effectiveness inside state-of-the-art labs at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute in the Chicago suburb of Barrington, Ill. But back in 1965, the scientists who created what is now Gatorade did so as part of an after-hours project at the University of Florida's medical school labs.