Drinking enough water is important for proper cell function and the immune system. Water helps regulate body temperature, and it lubricates our joints, organs, and tissues. But during an intense workout or sports activity, our bodies often need more than plain water for optimal performance.
Sports drinks provide excellent fuel for energy, but not all are created equal. Knowing what type of drink to choose and when to drink them are all important considerations.
How Dehydration Affects Your Workouts
When you exercise without drinking enough fluids, you’ll likely encounter some of the symptoms of dehydration: headaches, dry mouth, low energy, and muscle fatigue. Dehydration can be mentally and physically draining, limiting the amount of exercise you can do.
In terms of water intake, we generally recommend eight 8-ounce glasses of fluid per day, but you should also factor in your age, size, gender, and physical activity level to determine how much water you should drink. For instance, an athlete in training needs more water than a person living a sedentary lifestyle.
While water consumption should be your first priority, there are times when our bodies need added sugars and electrolytes to maintain energy levels and hydration status during exercise.
When Should You Choose a Sports Drink Over Water
Water is the preferred fuel for hydration if you are having a rest day or doing a light workout. Typically, workouts under 60 minutes do not require a sports drink.
On the other hand, if you have a very active day, engage in sports, or exercise for more than 60 minutes, your body will need the electrolytes from a sports drink to replenish the liquid lost through sweat.
Sweat is primarily made up of water, but it also contains large amounts of electrolytes, sodium, and chloride. The more intense your workout, the more you sweat. And the more you sweat, the more you need proper hydration through high-quality sports drinks.
Similarly, our brains and muscles rely on glucose (sugars) for energy after prolonged training, and being dehydrated can negatively impact performance and cause early fatigue. Healthy snacking before and after a workout is a great way to fuel up and replenish energy, but eating during exercise is not advisable.
Sports drinks are the most convenient way to hydrate and consume key nutrients during intense exercise. A carbohydrate-electrolyte drink increases athletic performance by elevating blood sugar and maintaining high rates of carbohydrate oxidation, ultimately preventing fatigue and reducing perceived exertion.
What to Look for in a Sports Drink
Not all sports drinks are the same. With many “enriched water” products available in the market, it’s easy for consumers to confuse what’s really good and healthy for their bodies. As a sports dietitian, I always recommend you check the nutrition label for the right ingredients.
Here are my recommendations for an 8-ounce fluid sports drink:
- 8-16 grams of sugars (from glucose and sucrose, in a 3-6% carbohydrate solution)
- 80-160 milligrams of sodium
Other added electrolytes and vitamins are great additions, but these two should be your top priority. This will ensure you’re drinking what your body actually needs and not overpaying for flavored water.
Sugar isn’t bad in a sports drink when taken correctly for its functional use. Just remember: if you aren’t exercising strenuously enough to deplete nutrients and water, sports drinks can add excess calories to your diet.