What to Drink When You Exercise

The options include sports drinks, energy drinks, and just regular water.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

We all know that when we work out, it's important to stay hydrated. Something we may not be so clear on is what exactly we should drink when we exercise.

Ordinary water, of course, is the classic choice. But with store shelves everywhere full of sports drinks, energy drinks, and various flavored and fortified waters, what's an exerciser to do?

Experts say it all depends on your taste -- as well as the length and intensity of your workouts. Here's a look at how the various drinks measure up.

Flavored or Unflavored?

When I'm really thirsty, the only thing that hits the spot is good old H2O -- preferably cold. But that's just me.

Are you someone who will drink more if your drink is flavored (and there are plenty of you out there)? Then you're better off drinking whatever ends up helping you drink more when you exercise. The bottom line is hydration.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends flavored drinks when fluid replacement is needed during and after exercise to enhance palatability and promote fluid replacement.

And how do you know when fluid replacement is really needed?

"Exercising 1.5 hours to three hours is long enough to warrant fluid replacement due to sweat losses," says Kristine Clark, Ph., FACSM, director of sports nutrition for Penn State University Park. "How much sweat is lost influences how much sodium and potassium are lost."

The longer you exercise and the more heavily you sweat, the greater the need for a sports drink to help replace these lost micronutrients, Clark says.

"A sports drink can do many great things to increase energy levels without the complications of digesting and absorbing a meal," says Clark.

Sports Drinks and Exercise

Basically, a sports drink offers your body three things it might need before, during, or after vigorous exercise:

  • Hydration. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that people drink about 17 ounces of fluid about two hours before exercise, to promote adequate hydration and allow time for the body to excrete any excess water. During exercise, they recommend that athletes start drinking early and at regular intervals in order to take in fluids at the rate they're losing them through sweating.
  • Fuel. The carbohydrates found in sweetened sports drinks provide energy to help delay fatigue, Clark says. The Gatorade Co. says lab tests have shown that 6% carbohydrate (14 grams of carbohydrate per 8 ounces of water) is the optimal percentage of carbs for speeding fluid and energy back into the body.
  • Electrolytes or Minerals. These are things like sodium, potassium, and chloride that athletes lose through sweat. When water goes out of the body, so do electrolytes. And when the body is losing lots of water (as during exercise), it makes sense that you need to replace electrolytes.

What About the Average Exerciser?

So what if you're just a "weekend warrior" when it comes to tough workouts? Or an avid exerciser who's not quite of athlete standing? Do you really need a sports drink when you exercise?

The answer, it seems, lies in how much you're sweating.

The American College of Sports Medicine says that during exercise lasting less than one hour there's little evidence of any difference in performance between exercisers who drink beverages containing carbohydrates and electrolytes, and those who drink plain water.

And, according to Clark, someone exercising 1.5 hours in a cool environment (who is probably not sweating much) is more in need of fluids or water than electrolytes.

The ABCs of Vitamin Water

I totally get adding electrolytes to drinks to help your body recover from vigorous exercise, but vitamins? It's still best to get vitamins and minerals naturally from foods and beverages -- like vitamin C from citrus and dark leafy green vegetables, and calcium from dairy products.

"Athletes will not need vitamin and mineral supplements if adequate energy to maintain body weight is consumed from a variety of foods," the American Dietetic Association and American College of Sports Medicine say in a position paper on nutrition and athletic performance.

But if you really like the idea of vitamin water, here are some things to think about:

  • Whether alternative sweeteners are added. Many experts believe that even alternative sweeteners should be consumed in moderation, especially in children.
  • Whether you'll be taking in too many vitamins. Most of the vitamins added to vitamin water are water soluble (like vitamin C, B vitamins, etc.). This makes it seem like any excess consumed can just pass out through the kidneys. This is true -- but that doesn't mean large amounts of water-soluble vitamins are entirely harmless. High amounts can affect the absorption or utilization of other nutrients. It's also possible that passing large amounts through the kidneys could cause problems.
  • Whether you might be just as happy with dressed-up regular water. You can flavor it with lemon, lime, orange, or a strawberry or two. Green tea comes flavored naturally these days, too. This can be a different but healthful way to drink water once a day, too.


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