Gatorade’s Hydration Confessions

CrossFit Inc. and Dr. Tim Noakes have taken on Gatorade and its partners in exercise science. The topic: hydration.

CrossFit hosted an international conference on Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia. Noakes went toe-to-toe with Gatorade’s spokesmen and even published a history of the creation of exercise associated hyponatremia (EAH occurs when athletes drink too much during exercise and dilute their blood sodium below healthy levels).

An astute journalist could build a career uncovering the full magnitude of Gatorade-funded fraud, and the consequent carnage. Contact us and we’ll facilitate this.

Yet CrossFit Inc.’s two main points are straightforward and easily-documented:

1. Gatorade Corrupts Science
Gatorade’s involvement in exercise science twists scientific research to sell more product.

2. Stay Safe: Drink to Thirst
Instead of following extreme hydration guidelines such as the American College of Sports Medicine’s “the maximal amount that can be tolerated,” or Gatorade’s “at least 40 oz. of fluid an hour,” etc., athletes should just drink ad libitum, or when they feel like it. Humans possess an effective mechanism for preventing hyper-hydration and severe dehydration: thirst.

After at least 17 preventable deaths, Gatorade and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) officials have finally confessed to both counts.

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For four decades Gatorade spent billions telling consumers to drink more than is necessary, or safe.

What Took So Long?

It took a generation for Gatorade and its partners in exercise science to fully retreat from their extreme hydration recommendations. Even as 17+ athletes died from hyper-hydration, Gatorade and its partners resisted confessing that drinking to thirst was the safe way to go.

The opposition facing CrossFit and Noakes was formidable. Gatorade earns PepsiCo over $4 billion a year. Gatorade sends some of those profits to their partners in exercise science: the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association.

Gatorade leverages its relationships with ACSM and NSCA to influence coaches’ and athletes’ drinking practices. Gatorade and its owner PepsiCo are quite open about this. See this Gatorade Marketing position’s role at Pepsico:

Lead all strategy and execution against emerging strength coach audience, identifying ways to educate and for Gatorade to add value to this important influencer group. Lead partnerships and activation with CSCCa and NSCA in collaboration with sports marketing … Work closely with GSSI marketing team on strategy and execution for science influencers and the translation to practitioner groups. Collaborate on efforts with key partner orgs and at key conferences including ACSM, ECSS and GSSI XP.

Incoming ACSM president Larry Armstrong admitted to the Wall Street Journal that Gatorade funding “does affect objectivity.”  If he cares at all about scientific objectivity, Armstrong must use his authority at ACSM to remove Gatorade’s corrosive impact. He must not just end Gatorade’s partnership with ACSM, but also ban all ACSM fellows from accepting Gatorade dollars.

Gatorade Finally Adopts CrossFit and Noakes’ Science:

Last summer, three high school football players died: William Shogran, Zyrees Oliver, and Walker Wilbanks. At least two of them died from drinking too much Gatorade and water. This spring, Gatorade released a Webinar on American Football that radically changed Gatorade’s hydration stance. The Gatorade Webinar brought Gatorade’s hydration policies much more closely in line with CrossFit Inc. and Dr. Noakes’ science-based guidelines. You can watch the hydration segment starting at 42:46 here. A transcript is available here. And you can read an article on the topic here.

Gatorade’s football webinar recommended that athletes “minimize fluids by drinking ad libitum during activity and replacing the remainder of fluid losses after activity.”

Ad libitum means “at will.” In other words, Gatorade’s warning exercising athletes to drink if, and only if, they feel like it.


Why the change? Gatorade’s now warning that “drinking too much fluid” causes Hyponatremia, a condition that “can lead to death.”


Drinking to Thirst
Traditionally hydration scientists have used “ad libitum” and “to thirst” as synonyms. Like Dr. Noakes and CrossFit Inc. Gatorade now recommends that athletes “drink to thirst to minimize the risk of over-drinking.” That is, unless they track their exact sweat rate, urination rate (enjoy!), and (one presumes) their fluid intake rate during exercise. Drinking to thirst means most athletes won’t replace all fluids lost during exercise. No problem; they can make them up when they finish training. In Gatorade’s words,
Thirst is a great guide for a person to have an overall indication of their hydration status. We definitely want to educate that thirst can be a good indicator because if an athlete is thirsty on a football field that’s a great clue that they need, they need fluid. And to be honest, during activity, because we don’t have great technologies yet that people are trying to develop, we don’t have a way to assess hydration status during activity while they’re in full gear out on the field because they’re not gonna be checking their urine status, we don’t have the ability to weigh them during a practice. So thirst can be real-time, can be a helpful indicator for somebody. We like to combine that with people having a clue about what their hydration needs are because if they very consistently lose 2 liters per hour, they do that every practice during intense exercise in the heat, and the practice is 3 hours long, we have a pretty good idea that they’re gonna lose 6 liters. So we wanna’ maybe try to get 4 liters back in so that they might only be 3 or 4% dehydrated when they walk off the field instead of being 7 or 8% dehydrated.
But what about heat illness? Doesn’t dehydration cause heat stroke? Nope. Gatorade officials even confessed, “evidence has not shown” that dehydration “can increase the risk of exertional heat illnesses.”

Had Gatorade come clean in 2003, Walker Wilbanks, Zyrees Oliver, Patrick Allen, and other casualties of over-hydration may have survived. And so, Gatorade’s 2015 confession is not enough to make things right. A private webinar and an accompanying article can’t undo untold numbers of billboards and magazine ads. And they can’t give the Olivers, Wilbanks and Allens back their sons.
Zyrees Oliver as a baby. He went on to captain the football team, earn a 3.8 GPA, and die from excessive Gatorade/water.

Zyrees Oliver as a baby. He went on to captain the football team, earn a 3.8 GPA, and die from drinking excessive Gatorade and water.

Gatorade spent four decades and billions of dollars misleading athletes and coaches about hydration. It would take at least several years and hundreds of millions of dollars for Gatorade to correct the record.
This is probably fantasy. It’s hard to imagine Gatorade and PepsiCo voluntarily spending millions of dollars to sell less product. And so, we recall CrossFit Inc. Founder Greg Glassman’s 2014 pronouncement, “It’s time to drive Big Soda out of fitness and by extension, the health sciences.”


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