Once aimed more or less exclusively at serious athletes, sports drinks are now being targeted at mainstream markets as more and more consumers look to incorporate sporting activities into their lives. Meanwhile, the sports drinks category is becoming increasingly diverse as a result of constant product innovation by suppliers. Annette Farr reports.

Sports drinks, once targeted solely at athletes wishing to enhance performance and hydration, are breaking away from their traditional mould. New 'hybrid' drinks, with added functionality, are now being launched to meet the demands of increasingly health and fitness-conscious consumers.

Originally, sports drinks comprised three categories: the hypotonic, isotonic and hypertonic. All of these feature water, electrolytes, and varying levels of carbohydrate (sugar).

The hypotonic is a low-level carbohydrate drink which quenches thirst and provides fluid, but not much energy; an example is Lucozade Active, drunk to replace fluids whilst training. The isotonic drink, with its small amount (usually less than 8%) of carbohydrate is said to fuel muscles; it should be drunk before, during and after exercise. The hypertonic is a high-level carbohydrate drink which replaces lost energy rather than lost fluid, and is ideal for heavy workouts.

However, the sports drink category is now more fragmented. According to the research company, Innova Database, between 2002 and 2006 some 1,608 new global sports drink launches were recorded, peaking in 2005 when 550 new sports drinks entered the world arena, a surge which Natalie Tremellen, insights manager at Innova, attributes to the growth in sports waters on the market.

Overall, the sports drink category is buoyant. Market analyst Canadean reports the compound annual growth rate from 2000 to 2006 averaged more than 6% globally with rises from 2004 to 2006 in excess of 9%. Further, it anticipates that the sports drink category will have reached almost 12bn litres by 2009. In per capita terms this is equivalent to every drinker on the planet drinking 1.8 litres of sports drinks each year.

Canadean's research shows that North America, where the first sports drink - Gatorade - was launched in 1965, has a sizeable 49% share of the global sports drink market. Americans drink 14 litres of sports drink each year, compared to the current global per capita average of 1.5 litres.

Asia accounts for about a third of all sports drink sales worldwide. In Asia, they are positioned as more of a health product for rehydration and to replace nutrients lost through sweating rather than as an aid for athletes. The Japanese, in particular, have a well-established culture of sports drinks driven by Coca-Cola's Aquarius and Otsuka's Pocari Sweat.

Elsewhere, Europe lags behind with per capita consumption levels varying from 0.1 litres in France to 4.6 litres in the Netherlands. Australia's per capita consumption figures reached a high of over 3 litres in 2000 but have since fallen back as the introduction of new drinks such as sports waters, diluted growth rates.

First among the sports water pioneers was Pepsi with its Propel Invigorating Water. Launched in the US in 2002, its proposition was not only to hydrate but also to nourish, providing a boost for active people throughout the day. It is not marketed as a sports drink, is mildly caffeinated and weighs in at 8 calories per 100ml.

Further innovation came from Pepsi in the US with G2. With the claim that it "will help keep athletes hydrated off the field so they are better prepared for competition on the field", the low-calorie (44 calories per 100ml) electrolyte G2 is pitched at the athlete to consume on any occasion.
 
The UK's No 1 sports brand Lucozade has also been innovative. Brand owner GlaxoSmithKline developed Lucozade Hydro Active as an exercise drink to provide effective hydration but with fewer calories than traditional sports drinks. Lucozade Sport with Caffeine Boost is an isotonic drink with modest levels (16mg per 100ml) of caffeine which is now no longer banned by the World Anti Doping Agency.

Innova Database reveals new product development in the field of endurance. Suitable for long distance events is Coca-Cola's Aquarius Endurance launched in Belgium. This drink features a high level of carbohydrate, 11.2g per 100ml; 24mg of sodium per 100ml; glucose-fructose syrup and maltodextrine and L-carnitine, an aid to the consumption and disposal of fat in the body.

Accelerade Advanced Sports Drink is another for the long distance runner. It claims to be the only sports drink with carbohydrate and all-natural whey protein in a patented 4:1 ratio. Clinical studies have demonstrated that Accelerade significantly extends exercise endurance, speeds muscle recovery and improves rehydration as compared to conventional sports drinks.

Product endorsement of sports drinks by famous professional athletes is becoming more common. Tennis star Andy Roddick has recently signed for AriZona Beverages' new Hypotonic Performance Drink. According to AriZona, this is the only sports drink on the market fortified with calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamins A and E, and infused with functional amino acids. The company says that its proprietary formula increases the rate of fluid absorption by the body's cells. Faster hydration means less fatigue, quicker response and overall better performance. The drink has a citrus lemon-lime flavour, said to be Roddick's personal favourite.
 
Tiger Woods favours citrus too, along with cherry and grape. These are the variants in a new range of sports drinks from Gatorade developed in conjunction with the famous golfer. They will be seen on shelf next month in the US. Woods is reported to have signed a five-year deal with Gatorade and has said he is looking forward to developing additional sports performance beverages with the brand over the coming years.

So it really is a question of 'watch this space'. 2008 is an Olympian year and as far as npd is concerned there's all to play for on and off the field.