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The Truth About Sports Drinks vs. Water & Other Alternatives

By Laura Williams

sports drinkThere’s a time and place for sports drinks, but chances are that time and place isn’t before, during, or after your 30-minute circuit training session at the gym. While there’s no denying that Gatorade and similar drinks taste great and have been mass-marketed to aspiring athletes everywhere, the truth is that most the time they’re simply unnecessary.

You can do your body a world of good by rehydrating and refueling after your workout with sports drink alternatives. However, that’s not to say you should never consume sports drinks. There is solid evidence to back their use in certain situations.

Benefits of Sports Drinks

Sports Drinks Provide Carbohydrates

During exercise, your body burns fuel to support movement, and when exercising at moderate or high intensities, glycogen stores provide the fastest, most readily available form of fuel. Unfortunately, your glycogen stores are relatively low, so when exercising at high intensities or over long periods of time they can deplete, significantly hindering your athletic performance. Runners refer to glycogen depletion as “bonking,” or “hitting the wall.” It’s the point at which your body shifts into a lower gear, recruiting energy from “slower” fat stores, rather than “fast” glycogen stores.

One of the reasons sports drinks shot to fame in 1965 with the introduction of Gatorade is that they provide a readily consumable simple carbohydrate that helps replenish glycogen stores. This is hugely beneficial to athletes who train at high intensities or for long periods of time, such as marathon runners or college football players enduring multiple practices in a single day.

Sports Drinks Provide Electrolytes

Sports drinks also provide a source of electrolytes in the form of sodium and potassium. Electrolytes are much talked about, but not much understood.

Essentially, electrolytes play a role in fluid balance and muscle function. When you perspire, in addition to sweating out water, you also sweat out electrolytes. If you’ve ever seen someone with a crusty, white-stained shirt after a workout, that’s evidence of sodium leaving the body.

In situations where athletes are exercising in high heat, extreme humidity, or for long periods of time, drinking a combination of fluids and electrolytes helps replenish losses and enables continued athletic performance. Sports drinks are an easy two-for-one, providing both fluids and electrolytes.

Understanding When Sports Drinks Are Appropriate

Based on human physiology and research, sports drinks are most beneficial during high-intensity exercise that lasts at least one hour or during moderate-intensity exercise lasting two or more hours. High heat or humidity may shorten these times slightly. To determine if sports drinks are appropriate for you, take a moment to answer these questions:

  • Do you regularly exercise for two or more hours at a time?
  • Do you exercise at extremely high intensities for 45 minutes or more?
  • Do you engage in two-a-days or tournaments in which you’re competing at high intensities several times a day?
  • Do you perform high-intensity exercises during extreme heat or high humidity for at least 45 minutes?

If you answered “no” to all of these, chances are you don’t need a sports drink. If you answered “yes” to any of them, you may benefit from a sports drink when exercising under those conditions.

water

Sports Drink Alternatives

If you’ve determined that sports drinks aren’t the way to go based on your exercise habits, try one of these alternatives to help you stay hydrated during your workout and refueled once you’re done.

1. Water

It should come as no surprise that water is the best sports drink alternative. Whether you’re exercising for 20 minutes or an hour, you need to replenish fluids lost through sweat. Drink several ounces of water every 15 minutes during exercise, and rehydrate post-workout, monitoring your urine’s color to ensure effective rehydration – if your urine is light yellow or clear, you’re sufficiently hydrated; however, if it’s dark, keep drinking at a steady rate.

What About Electrolytes?
Most water, particularly filtered water, does not contain electrolytes – but that’s okay. Take a quick look at pretty much any food label in your pantry or fridge. Does it have sodium listed? Great. Pair that food with a banana, and your electrolytes are going to be sufficiently restored. Sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium are all readily available in your food, so you shouldn’t have any problem naturally restoring electrolytes with your regular diet.

2. Coconut Water

If drinking plain water bothers you, the much-hyped coconut water is a solid choice for rehydration – as long as you choose an all-natural brand. It includes carbohydrates in the form of fruit sugars and naturally occurring electrolytes in the form of potassium and sodium. That said, coconut water isn’t cheap, and for endurance athletes, it doesn’t contain enough carbohydrates for long-haul events without additional supplementation. Grab a serving after a tough spin class, but leave it behind for that 100-mile cycling event.

3. Milk

Unless you’re lactose intolerant, milk is another great post-workout drink. It contains carbohydrates and electrolytes, as well as high-quality proteins. While downing a glass of milk in the middle of your 10k probably doesn’t sound appealing, a couple of glasses of milk or chocolate milk post-race can help you rehydrate while also replenishing your electrolyte and glycogen stores.

Final Word

There are lots of other drinks on the market that tout “energy,” “rehydration,” or “performance.” In most cases, ignore the hype. Pick up a can or bottle, turn it around, and take a peek at the label. If it’s packed with processed sugars, or if the ingredient list has a million words you can’t pronounce, chances are you can confidently return it to the shelf.

There are some things Mother Nature does best, and simple rehydration is one of them. Next time you’re headed to the gym, save the $2 you’d spend on a Gatorade, and fill up your trusty water bottle instead. Throw a fresh banana and some cereal in your bag for a post-workout snack, and you can be rehydrated and refueled in no time.

How do you hydrate during and after a workout?

Laura Williams
Laura Williams holds a master's degree in exercise and sport science and enjoys breaking up her day by running her dogs, hitting the gym, and watching TV. Having been in charge of her own finances since the early age of 12, she knows how to save and when to spend, and she loves sharing these tips with others. Laura ditched her career as a fitness center manager for the relative freedom of home-based writing and editing work. She stays busy by working on her own website, GirlsGoneSporty, a website designed to help the sporty woman live the sporty life.

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    I will say one thing about your suggestion of just using water paired with some food: it would probably work as a recovery drink, but if I’m doing something very fast-paced, eating some food *and* a banana during high-intensity workouts would make me feel pretty bloated.

    Oh, and there’s one more thing that they do besides replacing carbs, sodium, magnesium potassium — the taste convinces you to drink a bit more and thus get a bit more re-hydrated than you normally would otherwise. I make my own electrolyte drink, but unless it’s a very humid day or I’ve done an especially intense workout, I’ll dilute it so it’s only got about half the non-water ingredients.

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