Are Sports Drinks Better Than Water When Exercising?

What drink is best for getting and staying hydrated during exercise? Should you choose water? Are sports drinks best?

The debate concerning sports drinks vs water as the better exercise drink concerns a number of factors, the most important of which is proper hydration. When exercising, the human body loses more water than during normal activity through sweat; this water must be replaced to maintain the body’s health.

Whether you would benefit from consuming a sports drink depends on the events you are taking part in and your goals.

Sports drinks typically contain water and electrolytes (usually sodium and potassium) for rehydration and carbohydrates (as sugars) for energy. They were invented in the 60s to replenish fluid and provide extra fuel for intense sporting activity of a long duration (more than 90 minutes).

If you’re in the gym pedaling to lose weight while you read a magazine, then you don’t need a sports drink, just drink water. Sports drinks are for serious athletes only.

For ordinary people who play soccer on a Saturday, there’s no need for them because their fluid requirements can be met by water and generally you’re not sweating enough to lose excessive amounts of electrolytes.

Do you need the carbs?

But what if you do consider yourself a committed athlete and you’re taking part in a marathon or triathlon event?

The carbs in sports drinks can be helpful if you are aiming for a personal best, or taking part in a competition you really must win. From the physiological point of view there’s a benefit in having carbs for sustained intense exercise of over 60 minutes. This is because when we start exercising, our muscles initially use their stores of carbohydrate for fuel, but these stores become depleted after about 90 minutes. Our muscles then start to become more reliant on fat burning for fuel. This isn’t as efficient as burning carbohydrates, so our pace is slowed.

The intake of worthwhile amounts of carbohydrate from a source during exercise, such as a sports drink, will provide an alternative or additional source of fuel to allow carbohydrate to continue to be ‘burned’ at the higher levels needed to sustain the athlete’s optimal pace. The carbs can also have a motivational effect even in shorter workouts.

Don’t forget the sugar.

But if a sports drink can help a serious athlete, why shouldn’t we all use them?

Well, the problem is the carbohydrates are usually sugars in the drink. If you are exercising to lose weight, then drinking a sports drink could mean you need to spend another 30 minutes or more in the gym.

Lastly, don’t confuse sports drinks with energy drinks. These often contain more carbohydrates than sports drinks as well as stimulants like caffeine.

So, when you’re deciding whether to choose water or a sports drink, here are some guidelines.

Use water:

  • When exercising to lose weight
  • When exercising for an hour or less
Consider using a sports drink:
  • For fuel when doing intense sustained exercise for 90 minutes or more. You need at least 30g carbs/hour.
  • When the outcome of a competition is important to you and you need to perform at your best. Using small amounts every 10-15 minute can make you feel like working harder.


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