Sports drinks have become very popular among athletes and recreational exercisers. Many drinks claim to boost energy and athletic performance, and there’s no shortage of slick advertising campaigns with famous sportspeople hoping to convince us of the benefits. Often containing substances such as electrolytes and carbohydrates, sports drinks often provide more than just water, but do they actually do a better job of hydrating us than regular H2O?
Water is by far the most popular fluid choice during exercise, but in terms of pure hydration, sports drinks do have some advantages. Fluids are absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract and into the bloodstream faster when their osmolality closely matches that of body fluids such as blood. Osmolality is the concentration of dissolved particles in a fluid. Sports drinks contain dissolved minerals, such as sodium, whereas water doesn't, meaning water doesn't reach the bloodstream quite as quickly.
Sodium and other nutrients also play important roles in regulating fluid balance in the body. They help determine how much fluid enters muscle fibres and other cells, as well as how much remains in the blood. Because sports drinks contain these nutrients, they do a better job of allowing the body to maintain optimal fluid balance, which is an important aspect of hydration.
Another advantage of sports drinks is that the sodium content stimulates thirst, so athletes usually drink more when they have a sports drink than when they have water. Similarly, an important factor to consider is that your enjoyment of a particular beverage has a big impact on how much of it you drink. The flavour of sports drinks often means athletes drink more than if they were consuming plain old water.
But crucially, most active individuals do not exercise intensely enough or long enough to necessitate the increased levels of hydration provided by sports drinks. When it comes to hydration, it’s very important to consider your exercise habits, as well as the duration and intensity of your training. If the goal of your exercise is to lose weight and burn calories, jogging for 30 minutes can help you burn around 250 calories, but hydrating yourself with a sports drink could easily add another 80 calories back in. Weight training is great for building muscle mass and can feel like hard work, but a 30-minute session would probably only burn between 100 to 150 calories.
Think carefully about whether the type and duration of your exercise requires a sports drink and be aware of how many calories you consume from these beverages.
Many beverages can hydrate your body just as effectively as sports drinks, including plain water. A 2015 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that there was no difference in the hydrating ability of water, sports drinks and even tea. In fact, some beverages that are typically considered to be dehydrating, such as coffee, hydrated the body almost as well as water.
While sports drinks can benefit athletes who engage in long or intense training sessions, they are probably unnecessary for most gym-goers or casual exercisers. If you perform a light-to-moderate exercise, such as walking or jogging, or if you spend around 1 hour at the gym, you probably do not need to use sports drinks. Water can offer the same levels of hydration, without the calorie content and cost.
And while we’re on the subject of hydration, sparkling water is just as effective as still water. The carbonation of sparkling water has almost no impact on the body’s ability to process the water, with most of the gas being released in the stomach. Those little bubbles can sometimes lead to you feeler fuller more quickly, thus impacting how much you drink, but reversely, some find that bubbly refreshment helps them to drink more.
The temperature of your water does play a role in how quickly it can be absorbed into your body. Room temperature water is more readily available to the body for hydration, which is especially important during times of dehydration. Coldwater causes the blood vessels around the stomach to constrict, which can slow down absorption. Warmer water helps keep everything moving and it does this while promoting healthy blood flow and circulation. But again, on the flip side, cold water is more refreshing to drink and helps cool your body faster when you’re hot after exercising.
There are differences in the hydration levels of different drinks, but these are often small and can have a little noticeable impact. The most important thing is that we stay properly hydrated at all times, not only when we’re exercising. No matter what your level of activity, drinking 2-3 litres of water a day is recommended to help your body function at its best. And finding a tasty way to enjoy water will greatly help you achieve your hydration goal.