Sports drinks can be valuable for athletes and individuals engaging in intense, prolonged physical activity. However, for most people and everyday hydration needs, water is the preferred choice due to its simplicity, lack of added sugars, and overall health benefits. When deciding between sports drinks and water, it’s important to consider your goals and whether what’s in your sports drink is actually offering any benefit. In the year when Prime Sports Drink went viral in an act of marketing genius, sending young folk into a FOMO frenzy, we thought we’d take a closer look at hydration and revisit the question “Are sports drinks better than water?”
How much hydration do we really need?
The messages we’re used to hearing, especially over the warmer months, are that we need to pay attention to keeping ourselves hydrated. Blog posts, magazine articles, and even news reports are all touting the risks related to dehydration, from wrinkles to complete organ failure. A common rule of thumb, growing up in Australia was to drink 8 glasses of water per day, but just how big should a glass be? For athletes, or people who are physically active all day, should they be drinking more?
Around half of your body mass is made up of water, so it’s fair to say that it’s pretty important. Studies have shown that a human can probably not last more than 3 days without water, but needs can vary greatly depending on a number of factors such as age, size, activity level, temperature (due to sweating), and overall fitness.
When we become dehydrated, our bodies go looking for water in order to provide vital organs with the fluid they need. Water is drawn from the blood, causing the blood to thicken, which then makes the heart work harder to pump it around the body. The extra effort required by your heart can make physical activity difficult and cause fatigue. Dehydration can also cause constipation as the water gets pulled away from your bowels, and even the brain can shrink with fluid loss, resulting in cognitive impairment.
Scientifically, dehydration is deemed as having lost two percent of your body weight in water. Now, this can happen quickly in extreme cases, such as Rafael Nadal losing 4kgs through sweating in a match at the 2022 Australia Open. For most people, however, a loss of two percent of their body weight takes some sustained exertion without fluid replacement, and is pretty unlikely in a comfortable temperature environment, at rest.
Our bodies are pretty clued up when it comes to staying hydrated. Sensors in our brains continuously monitor the salinity of the blood and tell our kidneys whether they should pull more water from the blood or hold onto it. If we need more water, our brains send out a signal that we’re thirsty. Essentially, if you aren’t thirsty, you’re probably adequately hydrated.
Are electrolyte drinks better than water?
Electrolyte drinks or sports drinks contain carbohydrates and sodium, which can be beneficial during periods of intensive exercise. The sodium content can reduce fluid loss through urination (due to that whole “brain-to-kidney” conversation we mentioned earlier) before commencing exercise, meaning that more fluid is readily available in the body. The carbohydrates in sports drinks provide an available source of glycogen. Carbohydrates play a vital role in fuelling exercise, especially during activities that require moderate to high intensity or endurance. They are the body’s preferred and most efficient source of energy.
The primary electrolytes in the body include sodium: potassium, calcium, magnesium, and chloride. These electrolytes are minerals that play critical roles in various physiological functions in the body, in particular;
- Muscle function (an imbalance can lead to muscle weakness, cramps, or spasms),
- Fluid balance (electrolytes help regulate the movement of fluids in and out of cells, which is vital for maintaining proper hydration and blood pressure)
- Heart function (sodium and potassium are particularly important for maintaining the electrical activity of the heart and ensuring proper cardiac function), and
Blood pressure regulation (sodium, potassium, and calcium influence blood pressure, and imbalances can lead to hypertension (high blood pressure) or hypotension (low blood pressure)
What's in your sports drink?
The pdf below is a handy visual guide when comparing some of the more popular electrolyte drinks in Australia. As you can see, the contents of sports drinks can vary quite a bit from brand to brand. And while in this article, we’re only really discussing electrolyte drinks, the use of pre-workout and post-workout drinks are hugely popular at the moment, which serve a different function altogether. Stay tuned for an article that looks at those products a little more closely.
If you’re consuming a sports drink loaded with carbs to get you through a workout, but the whole reason you’re exercising is to lose weight, you’re not really doing yourself any favours. Since most weight loss strategies are based on a caloric deficit, you’ll want to swap out a carbohydrate-laden drink for good old water. For an athlete looking for a readily accessible source of fuel during intense performance and training, calories really aren’t an issue, and the added benefit of electrolytes to get through an event can be a real benefit.
Should you drink sports drinks instead of water?
For most of us weekend warriors or those with an active job, sports drinks aren’t necessary to maintain good hydration. Adequate intake of water and good nutrition should be enough to provide all the minerals our bodies need. For someone who doesn’t really like drinking water, and may otherwise be consuming soft drinks, an electrolyte drink is going to be a better option. While sports drinks still contain unnecessary sugar, it’s generally far less than a fizzy alternative.
So, in summary, there are benefits for very active individuals to consume sports drinks during periods of intense exercise but for most people, there’s really not a great deal of benefit. In saying that, if that brightly coloured drink is what you enjoy, go for it – just be aware of the calorie content, and don’t underestimate how great good old fashioned water is too!
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