Which Is Better: a Sports Drink or Water?

While it’s true that most sports drinks contain electrolytes that can help replace the minerals lost during exercise, most fitness pros agree that they’re no better at hydrating you then plain old water.

If exercise is a part of your daily or weekly regimen, chances are, so is some form of hydration to accompany whatever physical activity it is that you’re performing. Whether with water or a sports drink hydration is incredibly important regardless of your activity level. However, the more energy you exert and the more you sweat, the more your body needs to be replenished.

In fact, an estimated 60 percent of the human body is made up of water, per the U.S. Geological Survey, and it plays a key role in nearly every bodily function, including carrying nutrients and oxygen to cells, regulating our temperature, ensuring our organs are working properly, maintaining our blood pressure and assisting in good digestion, to name a few.

Water also helps your body carry out physical exercise. “During exercise, being properly hydrated allows the fascia that is present in all parts of the body to stay supple and moving instead of sticking to itself,” explains Marvin Nixon, M.S., N.B.C.-H.W.C., C.P.T., certified nutrition consultant and ACE-certified personal trainer. “Fascia has the important job of transmitting the force created by our muscles to move us.” In other words, if you’re dehydrated—even slightly—you’re not going to be able to physically perform to the same capacity that you would if you were sufficiently hydrated.

Which is better: a sports drink or water?

Of course, regular H2O isn’t the only beverage you can consume while you exercise—and it’s often not the one most advertised on T.V. or social media. Sports drinks have had a place in the hall of fame of exercise beverages for quite some time. While it’s true that most sports drinks contain electrolytes that can help replace the minerals lost during exercise, most fitness pros agree that they’re no better at hydrating you then plain old water.

There are many reasons for this. First, most sports drinks contain a ton of other ingredients, including processed sugar and unhealthy additives (i.e., food dyes and food additives that contain harmful ingredients) that are actually going to do more harm than good, notes functional nutritional therapy practitioner Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P. “This added sugar and processed additives are actually dehydrating and may cause more damage in the long run,” she warns. “Also, if all you are drinking are sports drinks, especially during exercise, you may be getting too much sodium and calorie-dense carbohydrates and not enough clean, filtered water to balance you out.”

There is a time and place where a sports drink may come in handy, however, and that’s if you are exercising for longer than an hour in conditions that are especially hot and humid. Working out in this kind of environment for an extended period of time, may cause you to lose a significant amount of electrolytes, explains Tom Holland, C.S.C.S., C.I.S.S.N., exercise physiologist, certified sports nutritionist and author of Swim, Bike, Run – Eat: The Complete Guide to Fueling Your Triathlon.

What to look for in a sports drink

If you do decide to go the sports-drink route, here are some tips for what to look for in a beverage to score the most benefits.

Make sure it’s less than 8 percent carbohydrate solution

“In order for your small intestine to absorb nutrients and sugars in the sports drink while you are still training or exercising, it must be at a certain concentration,” explains Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness. “If the concentration of carbohydrates is too high, you run the risk of stomach aches, maldigestion, diarrhea, cramps, and poor performance.” He recommends sticking to sports drinks that have a 6-8 percent carbohydrate solution to prevent undesirable side effects or an inability to perform optimally.

Look for a sodium content of 80-160 mg per 8 ounces

As you sweat, you lose sodium in your body, so it can be helpful to sip on a beverage that can replenish your levels. Dr. Adams recommends looking for a sports drink with 80-160 mg of sodium per 8 ounce. Potassium is another electrolyte that helps us regulate our sodium levels, so it’s important to keep it balanced, too. Look for potassium levels in the 15-45mg per 8oz range when selecting a sports drink.

Consider caffeine volume

A small amount of caffeine may help your performance, according to Dr. Adams, as it helps with the update of carbohydrate into the body as stored glycogen. “This will help you on your next training session, which may be particularly useful if you have another game, session, or event later the same day,” he says He recommends looking for 50-200mg of caffeine per 8 ounces. If you are caffeine-sensitive, however, he recommends opting for lower dosages.

What to know when drinking water during exercise

If you plan on going the water route, remember to fully hydrate all day—not just in the minutes leading up to, and during, your workout. Dr. Adams suggests drinking 4-8 ounces of water every couple of hours throughout the day and then starting to increase that amount as you get closer to your training time or event. “When using water for post-workout, it’s important to gauge how much you lose, so weigh yourself before you train or compete and then again immediately after,” he says. “You will want to consume 2 cups of water for every pound you lose, as this will ensure you are adequately replacing what you have lost.”



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