Get Up and Move Challenge Day 6: Are sports drinks (such as Gatorade and Powerade) and protein smoothies important during and/or after a workout?
That depends. Assuming you aren't in intense training for anything, such as a long endurance event lasting over an hour or are heavily into lifting weights*, no, sports drinks and other "exercise" supplements are not necessary.
"But Gatorade/Powerade/etc. claim that I need to refuel, rehydrate, and get my electrolyte balance back after a workout." True, if you are working out for a long period of time (greater than 1 hour), but not if you're doing anything less than that (assuming normal conditions -- not extremely hot temperatures). So many times people will devote 10, 20, 30, 40 minutes to a workout then head over and belly up to the smoothie bar at their gym and order a protein shake. Bye bye workout.
Let's crunch some numbers.
As a rule of thumb, about 100 calories are burned for every mile you walk or run. (There are many variences, but like I said, this is a rough estimate.) Let's say we had a great day and walked 2 miles. 2 miles = 200 calories.
1 20 ounce bottle of regular Gatorade = 122 calories, net difference 78 calories.
8 ounces of regular Powerade = 60 calories, net difference 120 calories. (But let's face it, you usually drink the whole 20 ounce bottle, which would be 150 calories for a difference of 50 cal.)
As for those post-workout smoothies? They can range from 200 - 800 calories, add in that scoop of protein powder and you've just added another 120.
Are we starting to see the problem here? It's so easy to eat and drink our way through our workouts with those so-called "refueling" beverages and snacks before we even make it out of the gym.
But do you need them in order to maintain your energy level? Once again, assuming your workouts are at a moderate-level and less than an hour, no. Your day to day nutrition and simple water intake during and post-workout is enough to cover and supply all of your exercise energy needs . So instead of shelling out for those sports drinks or expensive energy smoothies, think about what you're really getting out of them. Excess calories and most likely excess nutrients you already get through your diet. Not exactly what you were aiming for.
*If you are training for endurance competitions that are in excess of 1 hour, or are trying to build lots of muscle mass, additional protein and carbohydrates during and after workouts may be necessary. But that is a story for a different day. :)
 Dunford, M. Doyle JA. Nutrition for Sport and Exercise. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2008.