Do I Need a Sports Drink, or Is Water Enough?

Which do I choose? Water? Enhanced Water? Or Sports Drinks?


Enhanced water is water that has something added to it, such as vitamins, electrolytes, minerals, herbs or flavor.

Sports Drinks consist mainly of water, but have electrolytes such as sodium and potassium added to them. These minerals are vital in nerve cell function and the muscle cell function. They also contain carbohydrates–in various forms of sugar– which can quickly be converted to energy during exercise.

Not all sports drinks are the same, so read the label. Sugars (glucose, sucrose, and fructose) are absorbed in the small intestine quickly. Drinks that contain fructose as the only sweetener, however, can be more slowly absorbed and cause an upset stomach at high doses.

Not everyone needs a sports drink. For example, those doing moderate exercise such as walking, playing tennis, yoga, martial arts, swimming, quick cardio, and short distance running, do not need the ingredients–or extra calories–in sports drinks. Plain water or flavored water are perfectly capable of preventing dehydration and a loss of electrolytes. Sports drinks often have calories, so you may consume more calories than you are burning.

For high performance athletes, sports drinks may be better than water because they can supply additional energy and replace depleted electrolytes. If a person exercises at a high level for more than 60 minutes at a time, sports drinks can help maintaining electrolyte balance and replace depleted stores of carbohydrate being burned for energy. A major drawback of sports drinks is tooth decay. These drinks have high concentrations of citric acid which can erode tooth enamel. People who use these drinks are encouraged to rinse their mouth with plain water after consuming sports drinks. Drinking through a straw can reduce potential tooth decay because it involves significantly less contact with the teeth, though this may be impractical during exercise.

Finally, while sports drinks are often recommended for use DURING exercise, chocolate milk is the drink recommended by many exercise physiologists as the recovery drink of choice post-exercise and for strength training. The reason for this is that chocolate milk contains the optimal ratio of protein and carbohydrate to promote rapid muscle recovery. However, it does not improve performance.

What is the best choice for me?

Drink plain water if you are going to be exercising for 30 minutes to an hour–even at intense levels, or for more than an hour at a moderate level of intensity.

Choose a sports drink if doing more than 60 minutes of intense exercise. Read the label and make sure that there are no more than 50 calories, 14 gm of carbohydrates, and 110 mg of sodium per 8oz serving.  The American College of Sports Medicine recommends consuming 6-12oz of fluid every 15-20 minutes during intense exercise to maintain adequate hydration, and 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour of intense exercise.  These recommendations can be met by drinking ~24 oz of a standard sports drink (which should contain 4-8% carbohydrate) each hour.  (If this amount of sports drink upsets your stomach, try diluting it with some water).  And don’t forget that hydration needs don’t end after the exercise session is over; continuing to replace fluid and electrolyte losses with a sodium-enhanced drink AFTER exercise may promote better recovery than plain water.

To repair muscles and help replace depleted carbohydrate stores, try a glass of chocolate milk after a session of intense strength training or intense activity.


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