Water vs Sports Drinks
by Nancy Hearn

runner on the desertColorful flavors of sports drinks to choose from. But are they beneficial?

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The water vs sports drinks debate has continued for the past 25 years or more. I find many athletes are still confused about which fluid is better for hydration, sports performance, and exercise recovery.

Manufacturers of sports drinks must be doing something right because the sale of sports drinks continues to rise.

However, many people continue to wonder, "Are sports drinks really more effective than water for hydration, performance, and exercise recovery?"

As is the case with all health and fitness-related issues, there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution.

The need for fluid and electrolyte replacement depends on exercise intensity, duration, weather, and the rate of water loss through sweating, as well as the loss of electrolytes in the body.

Duration of Exercise Is the Critical Factor

However, the key factor to take into account when deciding whether to drink water vs sports drinks is the duration of exercise.

Most experts agree that, in general, people who exercise for less than 60 minutes will rehydrate just fine with water, as long as they drink enough of it before, during, and after exercise.

On the other hand, sports drinks have been proven to be more effective than water in improving performance and recovery for athletes who exercise for 60 minutes or longer.

However, this does not mean that we should only consume sports drinks when exercising for more than an hour.

No beverage replaces the need for drinking enough water regularly and throughout the day—regardless of the amount, duration, or intensity of exercise.

Other Factors for When to Drink Water vs Sports Drinks

There are a number of other factors that can increase fluid and electrolyte loss in the body while exercising. The most important ones include the following:

  1. High altitude
  2. Hot weather or warm indoor temperature
  3. Excessive sweating
  4. High-intensity exercise.

When these additional factors come into play, even if the exercise duration is less than 60 minutes, sports drinks can help to replenish not only the loss of water but also the loss of electrolytes and carbohydrates.

Thus, the so-called water vs sports drinks debate is essentially nonexistent in my mind. It’s not about choosing one or the other exclusively. Each has its unique benefits for health and safety, sports hydration, and exercise recovery.

All Drinking Water Is Not the Same

In addition, all drinking water is not the same, just as all sports drinks are not created equal. Most people think “water is just water.” But in reality, drinking waters are quite different in quality and even structure.

Some drinking waters will hydrate better than others. For example, restructured ionized water is micro-clustered and thus can provide up to 6 times the hydration and absorption of tap or bottled waters. This also means that the water you drink will not sit in your stomach and slosh around while exercising.

In addition, some waters, such as reverse osmosis and distilled water, are de-mineralized, which I do not recommend for athletes or anyone else for that matter (except for periodic cleansing).

Demineralized water will tend to flush more electrolytes out of the body.

To understand why de-mineralized water will actually cause your body to flush more minerals out, read more here.

Since I see so many athletes and fitness enthusiasts drinking bottled water, I feel it’s important to note that most bottled water is either reprocessed tap water (containing unfiltered contaminants) or it is water purified via reverse osmosis or distillation.

The best drinking water for sports and fitness performance and exercise recovery is water that is mineral-rich and is micro-clustered. Another factor that is critical to exercise recovery is whether the water we drink is acidic or alkaline in pH.

Alkaline water that is ionized will help to restore the acid-alkaline balance in the body quickly, especially since exercise produces large amounts of acids in the muscles and throughout the entire body.

All Sports Drinks Are Not Created Equal

Chris Carmichael, coach of Lance Armstrong and other professional athletes, addresses the water vs sports drinks topic in his book “Food for Fitness: Eat Right to Train Right.”

Carmichael says there are four main categories of sports drinks, each with different goals and formulations:

  1. Electrolyte-replenishment drinks. These sport drinks are good for high-intensity, short-duration type of activities. This may include exercise classes in gyms, as well as amateur sports like soccer, football, basketball, and volleyball. Even though plain water may be sufficient for hydration, many people (especially children and teenagers) tend to drink more sports drinks with added sodium, which tends to stimulate thirst. I recommend drinking 16 to 32 ounces of clean water OR an electrolyte replenishment drink before, during, and after these activities.
  2. Carbohydrate-replacement drinks. These sport drinks are important for activities lasting one to three hours, where glycogen depletion is a concern. Thus, the best sports drinks for these activities should include both electrolytes and carbohydrates, including sucrose, glucose, maltodextrin, and fructose. My general recommendation for most athletes is to drink at least 24 ounces of carbohydrate-replacement drinks during an endurance event lasting one to three hours. In addition, I recommend drinking an additional 24 ounces of filtered or ionized water before, during, and after the event.
  3. Protein drinks. Many studies have shown that the addition of protein (amino acids) to a carbohydrate sports drink improves muscle recovery by increasing glycogen synthesis after exercise. Thus protein drinks are considered exercise recovery drinks. Carmichael recommends a ratio of seven parts carbohydrate to one part protein.
  4. Energy drinks. These drinks contain caffeine, carbohydrates, and/or other stimulants. Unfortunately, the high concentration of carbohydrate and caffeine actually promote dehydration. Even though these drinks may give athletes the initial boost to get up and get moving, they do not provide any overall benefits in training or performance. For the most part, I do not recommend them, especially not for serious athletes or endurance athletes.

Return from Water vs Sports Drinks to Proper Hydration Basics for Sports

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