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Sports Drinks vs. Water: Which is the Best Hydration Drink?

Of all the things we eat and drink, water is the most vital. Water makes up around 60% of an adult human's body weight. As we exercise, our body loses water, which makes it essential to keep hydrated.

So what is it that sports drinks offer that water doesn't? There are two principal features of sports drinks besides the water content: electrolytes and carbohydrates. 

Sports drink makers often advertise these elements as beneficial to sporting performance. However, whether these additions make for the best hydration drink is a matter of debate.

What's in a Sports Drink?

Sports drinks are mostly water, but they include added flavor, electrolytes, and carbohydrates. We're going to focus on the latter two of these.

Electrolytes

Sports drinks make a big point of promoting electrolytes. Electrolytes are a crucial part of a healthy body; sodium, magnesium, and potassium are all electrolytes. The body needs all of these to function but loses them through various means, including sweat.

The reasoning is that if a sports drink contains electrolytes, it replenishes vital chemicals lost during exercise. However, not all forms of exercise cause significant loss of electrolytes.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are far more familiar to consumers than electrolytes. They are what comes to mind with foods, such as pasta and potatoes.

Sports drinks contain around 6-8g of carbs per 100ml.

Carbohydrates provide calories, which the body uses as energy. This effect makes carbs an essential component of an active lifestyle, as the body needs calories to use as fuel. 

However, whether you need these in the best hydration drink for you depends on the kind of exercise you're doing.

Why Do Athletes Use Sports Drinks?

Intensive exercise can severely deplete the body of both electrolytes and carbohydrates. A small boost — such as that provided by a sports drink — can go a long way to address this.

You may have seen professional athletes using sports drinks on TV. One reason for this is that professional athletes undertake prolonged, intensive exercise. This level of activity requires an additional intake of electrolytes and carbs.

Another reason is that the owners of sports drink brands understand the benefits of having their products used by professional athletes. Gatorade is a famous brand of sports drink, and its owner PepsiCo's association with the NFL means that consumers frequently see Gatorade in an elite sporting context.

It's tempting to think that if elite athletes use sports drinks, it could help you as well. However, the best hydration drink for you depends on the level of exercise you're undertaking.

What Are Your Exercise Goals?

There should be a few questions you ask yourself as you determine the best hydration drink for you:

  • What kind of exercise am I doing?
  • What is my long-term goal?
  • How long do I want to work out?

What Kind of Exercise Am I Doing?

Replenishment of electrolytes and carbohydrates is essential for athletes who exercise for a long time, with little time for rest. Sodium intake, for example, is a considerable concern for long-distance runners. Sports drinks containing electrolytes can undoubtedly be of aid here.

For those of us undertaking less intensive fitness routines, the benefits are questionable. Electrolyte issues tend to only occur in athletes undertaking intensive endurance exercise, whereas hydration remains the main issue for those of us just out for a 1-2hr jog.

Similarly, if your activity is something like weight training, you may not need additional electrolytes or carbohydrates during exercise. The rest periods typical of such activity make extra intake ‘during’ exercise mostly redundant. However, proper hydration is still necessary for the training of this kind.

What Is My Long-Term Goal?

It's crucial to remember your goal when exercising. If your goal is to run a marathon, you're likely to undergo intensive exercise with no rest time. In this case, sports drinks may be the best hydration drink for you. You're going to need those electrolytes.

If your goal is to lose weight, sports drinks may well not be the best choice. The additional carbohydrates are counterproductive to a gentle exercise regimen.

Remember that losing weight means burning more calories than you consume per day. If you know how many your daily routine burns, you can work out whether you have room for an energy drink. But do you need one? 

Gentle exercise generally doesn't lead to electrolyte deficiency. Water may be the best hydration drink in these cases.

How Long Do I Want to Work Out?

Perhaps you want to start going for slightly longer runs or bike rides, but not ‘push yourself’ in a competitive way. The best advice is to try it with just water, and see how you feel.

If you find that you're feeling starved of energy or unwell after increasing your exercise duration, this might be the time to consider the best hydration drink for you.

Conclusion

Some of the most important things to remember:

Even If Professional Athletes Drink It, It Still May Not Help You

Pro athletes do an entirely different kind of exercise than most of us. Unless you're attempting intensive fitness regimens, the extra components found in sports drinks may do you more harm than good.

Don't Rely on Sports Drinks for Nutrition

Eating a balanced diet will generally provide you with all the electrolytes you need. ‘Extras’ are only necessary when you're exercising, which expends many calories and electrolytes. Eating well is enough for most of us.

Whatever You Drink… Remember to Drink!

Whether you decide that water or sports drinks are the best hydration drink for you, do stay hydrated. Water is essential, and you should never undertake exercise without a source of water to hand.


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