In the long run, are they worth it?

Beverage: Marathoners look to sports drinks to provide liquid boosts as they go through the miles.

October 17, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Hundreds of gallons of sports drinks will be poured down the throats of 7,000 runners pounding the streets of the city in the Baltimore Marathon this Saturday. Will those drinks do as promised, help make those 26 miles, 385 yards go by easily and painlessly?

Well, yes and no.

To understand the ambiguity, go back to the beginnings of what is now a $2.6 billion-a-year business. In the mid-1960s, Dr. Robert Cade, a researcher at the University of Florida, looked into an interesting question: Why don't football players have to relieve themselves during games?

He determined that it wasn't because it was so hard to unlace the football pants of that era, or because the coach's stare is too intimidating, but rather because players, at least in Florida, sweat so much during games they have no excess fluids.

So Cade devised a drink that would replace what the players were losing - a lot of water, a bit of salt and some other essential electrolytes - gave it a bit of sugar and lime flavor, put it in milk cartons and named it after the Florida mascot.

Gatorade was born. When the coach of Louisiana State University credited the drink with Florida's victory over his team, the legend was created.

Since then, Gatorade has become an American institution. Let others spray champagne to celebrate victories; in the National Football League, they dump Gatorade over the coach.

Now there is a legion of such drinks - Powerade, Energade, All Sport, Cytomax, Endurox, Exceed. There's even a local entry in this field, CeraSport, a Jessup-based company founded by medical researchers who are veterans of rehydration projects in the Third World. They claim that the "rice-based long chain carbohydrates" in their drink are better than the glucose-based sugars found in the others.

Some of these drinks aim for widespread appeal, others for just the serious athlete market with promises that various exotic ingredients will increase endurance and ease muscle burn.

Many of the scientific studies that form the basis for these claims are of dubious use. Few go down to the molecular level to really see what the drinks are doing in the muscles; most depend on the perceptions of the subjects.

Rarely do they meet the double blind standard demanded by first-class science, in which neither subject nor researcher knows who is getting what. And many are funded by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. Enough said.

Consider that in the mid-1960s, when Gatorade was born, the only sports beverage was water, and it was frowned upon by many coaches. You were somehow a sissy - weak, lacking in fortitude - if you took a drink of water during practice or a game. You were supposed to gut it out, show what you were made of.

Back then, they didn't have official water stops at the Boston Marathon, and drinking during the Olympic Marathon was discouraged.

Gatorade was seen as something different, a scientifically designed boost. Nothing sissy about taking a drink of that! So, if drinking had anything to do with Florida's beating LSU in that hot-weather game, it was probably because the Gators were drinking anything at all.

Not long thereafter, the Stokely Van Camp Co. - then best known for baked beans and prune juice - bought the rights to market what was thought to be a niche product. In the three decades since, the rights to this drink have sent millions of dollars into the coffers of the University of Florida.

Stokely Van Camp was eventually acquired by Quaker Oats. The people who make Pepsi recently spent $14 billion for Quaker Oats. For Pepsi, the crucial acquisition was not oatmeal, but Gatorade. After all, Coca-Cola has Powerade.

The point to remember is that water remains the most important liquid for an athlete - or even for someone mowing the lawn on a hot day. That's almost all of what's coming out in your sweat and almost all of what you need to replace.

That said, if you are going to be out there for three, four or more hours like most of the runners in Saturday's marathon, the sports drinks will probably do you some good. The sugar in them will help replace the energy you are using, delaying the need for your body to burn fat, a much more difficult and less efficient process.

There will also probably be enough time for some of the other ingredients to make their way through your digestive processes and out to the parts of the body that need them, though you may well have enough stores of these ingredients without the need for replenishment.

Gatorade, by the way, has been pushing the idea that its product is useful even if you are not exercising for that long. But the studies backing up this claim are interesting. It's not because the ingredients actually do any more for you than water, it's because you will drink more Gatorade because it tastes better than water and the salt in it will make you thirsty.

Worth the price? You decide.

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