Water vs. Sports Drinks

Drinking waterThe usage of sports drinks by non-athletes is a relatively recent phenomenon. Gatorade was the first mass-marketed sports drink and dominated the market until the 1990’s when other brands joined the search for profits. Now sports drinks are stocked beside soda, orange juice and water as just another flavored beverage and their purpose is vague at best to many consumers. However, they are formulated to aid hydration, but are they superior to water for ordinary people?

Water losses during exertion (exercise, work or play) need to be replaced at a rate equal to the sweat rate. The sweat rate varies from person to person due to hydration status, genetics, conditioning and environmental factors. However, a sweat loss of two percent or more of a person’s body weight is detrimental to performance. Thus, knowledge of one’s sweat rate and the “saltiness” of sweat is an intangible guide to fluid needs. Those with “saltier” sweat are losing more sodium and other minerals, such as potassium, magnesium and calcium, in their sweat and are in more danger of hyponatremia (too little sodium in the cells) if they consume water alone. Sports drinks are vital for these individuals to maintain performance in their job or sport, especially if they are performing for three or more hours.

The ordinary person, who is not working in a hot environment or exercising intensely for more than an hour can adequately hydrate with water alone. The exceptions to this may be pregnant women or those following a low sodium diet. Also, persons who chronically under consume water or ingest more than 300 mg of caffeine a day may be dehydrated and can benefit from a sports drink. Also for those who don’t like the taste of water, a flavored sports drink is a reasonable option for the hydration needs of these individuals.

If your inner geek wants to know more about electrolytes and proper fluid replacement during exercise, check out these articles:

Edwards C. "Fluid and carbohydrate replacement during exercise: How much and why?" Sports Science Institute. 1994.

Ganio M, Casa D, Armstrong L, Maresh, C. "Evidence-based approach to lingering hydration questions," Clinics in Sports Medicine 26 (2007): 1-16.

McGlory C, Morton J. "The effects of post-exercise consumption of high-molecular-weight versus low-molecular-weight carbohydrate solutions on subsequent high-intensity interval-running capacity," International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 20 (2010): 361-369.

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