Women’s Specific Sports Drinks: Are they necessary?

For low intensity, shorter duration exercise (easy days), water is often suitable for many individuals. Sports drinks may provide benefits when exercising in the heat, for heavy or salty sweaters, or when exercising for more than 60-90 minutes at a moderate to high intensity. When performance is the goal, research has shown that a sports drink can offer many advantages over water including:

đź’§Providing fluid and electrolytes to promote hydration

đź’§Stimulating thirst or increasing the desire to drink

đź’§Providing carbohydrate (fuel) for energy

đź’§Promoting hydration by increasing fluid absorption in the gut

Some claims suggest women may need different sports drink formulas due to metabolic differences related to female sex hormones estrogen and/or progesterone. Fluid balance, thirst, and body temperature may be affected by hormones, possibly increasing risk of dehydration and making exercising in the heat more challenging during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. Do sex-based physiological differences (e.g. hormone fluctuations, body mass and body composition differences, sweat rate differences) mean that women need specialized sports drinks? We aim to answer this bigger question in upcoming posts; but, for now let’s take a closer look at some existing sports drinks that are marketed specifically for women.

We analyzed the contents of two popular brands of sports drinks marketed as “women-specific formulas”. Very few differences were found between the standard and women’s specific sports drink. In one case, the women’s formula was simply a “diluted” version of the standard formula with a smaller serving size, less carbohydrate, and electrolytes (54 mg less sodium in women’s compared to standard) and use of sucrose in the women’s version instead of cane sugar in the standard version. In another brand, again the same ingredients are used in the same proportions except the women’s version has just 20 mg more sodium compared to the standard formula. For context, a pinch of salt contains at least 10x as much sodium (~200-300 mg).

While substrate oxidation, body temperature, and physiological factors related to hydration may fluctuate over the menstrual cycle and with duration/intensity/environmental conditions, there is not currently evidence to suggest women actually need specific nutrition products to address their needs. Possible “disadvantages” to high intensity performance during the menstrual cycle may be mitigated by eating a high-carb pre-exercise meal and taking in carbs during exercise. And, as long as an athlete is hydrating and fueling based on his or her individual needs and preferences, it does not appear to make a difference if you are utilizing a standard or women’s specific formula. TAKEAWAY: There are a lot of choices available on the market so choose the sports drink that meets your fluid, carbohydrate, and electrolyte goals and satisfies your taste preferences while taking into account other nutrition products you are using (i.e. gels, chews, bars). It is also recommended that female athletes track their menstrual cycle to see if they notice patterns that may affect fueling and hydration strategies.

PMID: 21923203, 32661839 , 31641955

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