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Water vs Sports Drinks: What's Best for Our Bodies?

On today’s supplement market, there are lots of different options for achieving common goals like hydration, weight loss or muscle gain. Keeping the body properly hydrated is critical not just for success in the gym, but for proper cognitive functioning and overall health and wellness. 

While people have been drinking water for thousands of years, sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade have risen to popularity over the last few decades as another option for staying hydrated. Many sports drinks include additional nutrients and additives like carbohydrates or electrolytes that can do a better job at keeping you hydrated than water alone – in the right situations.

This blog post will serve as a comparison between these two common sports drinks. Neither one is the perfect solution for hydration – they each have situations when one might be more applicable than the other. As is the case with many other important concepts in fitness, the choice boils down to personal preference and your own specific goals.

Using water for hydration

Water has been a valuable source of hydration since the early days of human civilization. Plain water is a great "default" option for when you want to hydrate throughout your day-to-day routine. It's easy to drink water because it's readily available almost anywhere. Many people carry a water bottle in their purse, backpack or work bag, filling it up multiple times throughout the day to maintain hydration.

In recent years, other varieties of water have become popular including sparkling water and coconut water. Whether you are going to be hitting the gym and want to maximize athletic performance, or you are simply going through a normal day at the office, it's important to consume enough water each day for proper hydration.How much water should you drink per day?

The exact amount of water required to stay hydrated varies depending on a few factors, including your age, climate and activity level. You've probably heard the classic "8 x 8" formula, which prescribes eight glasses of eight ounces of water each day. Also keep in mind that not all of your daily hydration will come just from drinking water. Rehydration also occurs through fluids found in other foods we eat, such as fruits and vegetables. However, since the amount is variable and hard to calculate, it's best not to include food when determining your hydration requirements.

Generally speaking, aiming for somewhere between 11 and 15 cups of water per day for men and 9 to 12 cups per day for women is a solid benchmark. Another easy rule of thumb is consuming half your body weight in ounces. On days when you are spending a lot of time outdoors doing physical activity in a hot climate, or engaging in intense exercise, you should aim for the higher end of that range.     

Using sports drinks for hydration

Sports drinks are a relatively new development. Gatorade, arguably the most well-known sports drink, was created by the University of Florida football team in 1965. Since then, dozens of other varieties and competitors have hit the market, including Powerade and Body Armor. Many of these drinks are designed to be more than a simple fluid replacement – some contain added sugar, electrolytes (important minerals like sodium and chloride), or other ingredients designed to improve the performance of the human body as you are hydrating. There's even a new class of hybrid sports and energy drinks, which may contain caffeine, taurine, or other substances designed to increase performance. In the next section, we'll address the specific ingredients you'll commonly find in sports drinks.

There are some situations when you might prefer consuming a sports drink over plain water to ensure you get enough fluid. A long distance endurance athlete might benefit from the addition of sodium,  potassium or carbohydrates, to help fuel their body and rehydrate over a longer period of time. Sports drinks are also valuable for helping to avoid exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH), a state in which the body's blood sodium levels are abnormally low. EAH can result in fatigues, muscle cramps and dizziness, but more serious injuries are possible in severe cases. Many of these cases were from athletes participating in elite-level competitions such as Ironman or ultramarathon races.

An athlete playing a sport with lots of shorter burst movements – like basketball or football – could benefit from a moderate amount of sucrose, a form of sugar that the body can use for energy. Both types of athletes will likely still need carbs, but the exact mix will be different depending on activity. It's also important to remember that sports drinks shouldn't be used the same way as water, which you can safely drink all day every day. 

Although the additives in these drinks can be helpful for boosting performance, not all sports drinks are created equal. There are many that contain ingredients that are primarily designed to improve flavor and taste, not to help you achieve your health goals. 

What to look for in sports drinks

Whether you're shopping online or in a store, reading the label on a sports beverage can help you understand what's in the product and decide if it's beneficial for your overall health and wellness. The most common ingredients you'll find in sports drinks are electrolytes and carbs - often in the form of sugars such as fructose or glucose. Some will also be fortified with vitamins and minerals, or blended with coconut water or fruit juices.

Sugar plays an important role in sports drinks by aiding in the absorption of fluid and helping with sodium retention. Only 3% carbohydrate concentration is necessary to achieve these benefits, which is roughly the amount you’ll find in most common sports drinks on the market today. Some drinks may contain an amount of sugar that makes the drink difficult to fit into your daily limit. Those with health concerns relating to blood sugar will also want to be cautious of the amount of sugar they consume from sports drinks. Take careful consideration of the amount of sugar you'll be consuming in the drink, and make sure it fits in with the rest of your dietary intake of foods and beverages. You'll also want to be sure you are getting the right type of electrolytes and vitamins, if you decide to consume sports drinks for hydration. Electrolytes such as potassium and magnesium are lost in small amounts when we sweat, and while it’s nice to replace them in a sports drink, it’s most important to get them in your day-to-day food and beverages. Electrolytes are important for helping to provide fuel for your body's muscles.

Choosing between water and sports drinks

As mentioned, there's no hard-and-fast rule that dictates when you should drink water and when you should consume sports drinks. Generally speaking, when it comes to day-to-day hydration, plain water or a sparkling or flavored variety consumed with electrolyte and carbohydrate-containing foods is a good enough option. On the other hand, if you're participating in an athletic competition or you simply want to maximize your performance by consuming ingredients that are beneficial to the body, a sports drink - consumed in the right quantity - could be an excellent option. However, always be aware of the ingredients your sports drink contains as well as the quantity you're consuming in a specific day or setting. When drinking water, you don't need to be as discerning - most people need at least 11 cups of water per day for adequate hydration. 

 

Finally, remember that none of this information should be considered nutritional or medical advice. You should consult with a registered dietitian or other healthcare expert before making any changes to your exercise regimen or adding any new supplement or sports drink to your diet. Switching up your fluids can be a great way to add some flavor to your routine and enhance athletic performance. Make sure to do your research and know your ingredients to ensure you select a quality sports drink that meets your nutritional needs.