Should You Drink Sports Drinks Instead of Water During Exercise?

Water and Sports Drink, which hydrates the body better?

During sports, most of us have seen athletes sipping on brightly colored beverages before, during or after a competition. These sports drinks are a big part of athletics. Many people believe that sport drinks, and not water are the magic tonic to improve exercise performance, even if you are not an athlete.

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Water makes up the majority of your body weight and is crucial for the proper functioning of your body. Our body is constantly losing water through sweat, urine, feces, and the air you exhale. To substitute for these losses and promote good health and exercise performance, it’s often recommended to consume fluids regularly throughout the day.

The recommended daily fluid consumption is 91 ounces (2.7 liters) for adult women and 125 ounces (3.7 liters) for adult men, although needs may differ.

The Main Ingredients in Sports Drinks

Water is the main ingredient in sports drinks, but they also contain other substances like carbs and electrolytes, which are supposed to increase performance.

The carbs in these drinks are often in the form of sugars like sucrose, glucose, and fructose, but they may also be found in other forms.

Typically, sports drinks are 6–8% carbohydrates. A 6% solution contains about 14 grams of carbs per 8 fluid ounces (240 ml).

However, some sports drinks are low- or zero-carb in an effort to appeal to those who want water and electrolytes without extra calories. Electrolytes are minerals that have an electrical charge, they are vital for your body’s normal operation. The main electrolytes found in sports drinks are potassium and sodium. Popular brands of sports drinks include Gatorade®, Powerade® and All Sport®, among others.

READ ALSO: Benefits of Drinking Water on Empty Stomach in the Morning

Although there are several different brands available, there is likely not a large difference in the effectiveness of the major sports drinks on the market.

While much research has been conducted on sports drinks, some people have probed the validity of these studies.

Sports Drinks Can Benefit Athletes

Water, carbs and electrolytes – which are the main components of sports drinks are each key for different aspects of exercise performance.

Water and electrolytes are lost in sweat, and it’s important to replace them, especially during long-duration exercise.

Your body stores carbs in your muscles and liver called glycogen, which is used for fuel during exercise. Consuming carbs before or during exercise can help slow down how quickly your body runs out of its own carbohydrate.

Sports drinks are designed to provide these three basic ingredients with the goal of improving and enhancing performance during exercise.

Many studies have studied the effects of sports drinks on exercise performance, and much of this research has been conducted in athletes.

Short-Duration Exercise

It’s not fully certain if sports drinks are beneficial for the body during short-duration exercise. One report looked at nine studies of intense cycling or running lasting 30–60 minutes.

Six of the studies showed that sports drinks benefited exercise performance. However, all participants were trained athletes performing intense exercise.

One study in trained cyclists found that a sports drink improved performance by about 2% during one hour of intense cycling, compared to a control.

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In spite of these findings, there is no concrete evidence to back the benefits of sports drinks for short-duration activities, such as jumping, sprinting and agility exercises.

Team Sports and Intermittent Exercise

The usage of sports drinks is very common in team sports like soccer, basketball and football.

These sports involve intermittent activities, which alternate between intense exercise and rest.

Some research shows that ingesting carbohydrate drinks like sports drinks can reduce fatigue and improve performance in sports like soccer and rugby.

Other studies have examined cycling for periods of 1.5–4 hours with periodic rest.

One report found that 9 out of 12 studies using this type of exercise showed better performance when sports drinks were consumed, compared to a placebo.

Prolonged Continuous Exercise

Unlike intermittent exercise, continuous exercise is performed with no rest periods.

Many studies have examined the effects of carbohydrate beverages like sports drinks during continuous exercise lasting 1–4 hours or longer, such as running and cycling.

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The majority of these studies show improvements in performance when consuming these beverages.

Likewise, athletes in team sports that are most similar to prolonged continuous exercise, such as soccer, are most likely to benefit from sports drinks.

These improvements may be due to the fact that sports drinks provide carbs for energy as your body’s stores get low and help prevent dehydration.

How Many Carbs?

Generally, the number of carbs that may be beneficial increases as the duration of exercise increases.

Research has shown that small amounts of carbs (fewer than 30 grams per hour) may improve exercise performance in events lasting 30–75 minutes.

It’s recommended to consume up to 30 grams per hour of carbs, or about 16 fluid ounces of a sports drink with 6% carbs, in sessions lasting 1–2 hours.

Sessions lasting 2–3 hours may benefit from more carbs — up to 60 grams per hour.

However, these recommendations are for continuous high-effort activity without rest. The same guidelines don’t apply to certain intermittent activities like weight training.

There are several factors to consider when deciding whether sports drinks may benefit you.

Type and Intensity of Exercise

First, consider your exercise habits, as well as the duration and intensity of your training.

While sports drinks can benefit athletes who engage in long or intense training sessions, they are probably unnecessary for most gym-goers.

If you perform light-to-moderate exercise, such as walking or jogging, for less than 1 hour, you probably do not need to use sports drinks.

Similarly, if you only perform weight training, you probably do not need to use sports drinks, even if you spend over an hour at the gym.

Much of your time may be resting between sets, and weight training does not reduce your body’s carbohydrate stores as much as endurance exercise does.

If you do decide to use a sports drink, you should probably consume smaller amounts for exercise lasting less than an hour and no more than 30 grams of carbs for a session lasting 1–2 hours.

They May Affect Weight Loss

For those trying to maintain or lose weight, another important factor to consider is energy balance, or the balance between the number of calories you consume and burn. If you wish to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume daily.

If sports drinks are needless for the type of exercise you do, drinking them provides you with unnecessary calories that could hamper your weight loss goals.

However, some research has shown that consuming sports drinks during exercises like running do not undo the calories expended during exercise.

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It’s important to realize that some activities may not burn many calories, even if they feel vigorous. Before taking sports drink, consider the type and duration of the exercise you do if it requires a sports drink and be aware of how many calories you consume from these beverages.

Other Options to Stay Hydrated

One study compared 13 different beverages, including sports drinks and water, to see how well they help in keeping the body hydrated.

Researchers provided 33.8 fluid ounces (1 liter) of each of these drinks and collected urine over the next several hours.

They found that milk, orange juice and an oral rehydration solution provided the maximum amount of hydration.

Oral dehydration solutions are precisely designed to cause fluid retention and contain higher levels of sodium and potassium than a normal sports drink.

One fascinating finding from this research was that there was no difference in the hydrating ability of water, sports drinks, tea and cola.

Some beverages such as coffee and beer, that are typically considered to be dehydrating, hydrated the body about as much as water!

Other research has indicated that coffee can help keep you hydrated, contrary to popular conviction.

It’s important to note that most drinks can contribute to your daily fluid requirements and help keep you hydrated.

This doesn’t mean that you should drink cola or beer during exercise, but it establishes that a wide variety of beverages can provide hydration throughout the day.

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