Water or Sports Drinks: What to Drink When?

Understand the importance of drinking water and the role of sports drinks in your efforts to stay hydrated during the summer.

With temperatures skyrocketing as we dive deeper into the summer months, hydration is more important than ever. Intense training sessions combined with sweltering heat can be a recipe for dehydration, and knowing the right way to hydrate can help you stay on top of your game.

One basic hydration question that's often asked is: What should you drink when you work out—plain water or a sports drink,or perhaps a combo of both? To understand the answer, you need to understand some of the science behind dehydration and fatigue.

Hydrate with Water

Your hydration strategy should begin and end with water. Period. Our bodies are roughly 60 percent water, and it plays a critical role in nearly every one of our body's natural processes.

The importance of water for athletes cannot be overstated. Water transports oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, aids in muscle contraction, fights fatigue and regulates body temperature—in addition to delivering countless other benefits.

For many types of exercise, drinking water alone should adequately hydrate you—as long as you get the proper amount.

"For most people performing short-duration, moderately intense exercise, water will get the job done," says Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for Sports Medicine.

Typically, if you're exercising for less than an hour with low to moderate intensity, hydrating with water should be enough to keep you performing at a high level. Of course, factors like extreme heat can muddle things up. But in general, if you aren't busting your butt and your session lasts less than an hour, sticking to water before and during your session is a smart move.

So, how much water do you need? You should drink 12 fluid ounces within 30 minutes of the start of your workout. Then, drink water every 20 minutes for the first hour you work out at light to moderate intensity. You'll know you aren't drinking enough water if your urine is a shade of dark brownish-yellow instead of clear or slightly yellow.

Hydrating with Water

Be Smart with your Sports Drink

Under no conditions should you ever completely forgo water and drink only sports drinks. Your main source of fluid should always be water. But under certain conditions, it makes sense to supplement water consumption with a sports drink. Sports drinks do have a place in hydration. The problem is, many people drink them far too often. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, sports drinks' high sugar content places them in a category of beverages that should be consumed "sparingly and infrequently." Other beverages in this category include soda and fruit juice.

Yet many people don't drink sports drinks sparingly and infrequently. Some folks reach for one anytime they break a sweat, and others drink them even if they aren't exercising—simply because they enjoy the taste. In a time when 71.4% of all adult Americans are consuming too much added sugar, that is not a good habit.

Consuming too much sugar can lead to a large number of undesirable health outcomes, including obesity, diabetes, liver failure, heart disease, tooth decay and cancer. In fact, many experts believe the added sugar in our diets is the number 1 cause of the rising rate of obesity and the higher incidence of many major diseases.

RELATED: Hydrate With Food

However, there is a scientific reason why sports drinks contain high amounts of sugar. When you exercise intensely, you drain your glycogen reserves. Glycogen is carbohydrate stored in the muscles and liver, and its our most efficient source of energy. During sustained intense exercise, glycogen stores get drained. This can lead to low blood glucose levels, which hurt performance by causing things like fatigue and nausea. The sugar in sports drinks provides your body with efficient and fast-acting carbohydrate, which prevents your glycogen stores from falling too low and keeps your blood glucose levels at the ideal level.

Water or Sports Drink

The electrolytes included in sports drinks—such as sodium and potassium—help the body retain fluid and enhance fluid and nutrient absorption. Obviously, the electrolytes provided by sports drinks serve a distinct performance-enhancing purpose—but only if you work out intensely enough for your body to need them. Bonci outlines a few different scenarios where consuming a sports drink makes sense:

  • Exercise that lasts longer than one hour
  • Grueling exercise like a particularly difficult workout or an intense sport like tennis
  • Tournaments or meets where you have back-to-back games or events
  • If you're a salty sweater, the electrolytes found in sports drinks will likely benefit you more often. Salty sweaters frequently find that their sweat stings their eyes, burns in an open cut, tastes salty or causes white streaks on their face, skin or clothes.

Remember, these are basic guidelines that can change depending on circumstances like extreme weather or level of equipment. For example, a football player wearing full pads sweats more than he would in no pads.

Ultimately, the more you sweat, the more likely you are to benefit from a sports drink.

"The fluids you need ultimately depends upon your sweat rate," Bonci says.

So if you're performing moderately intense exercise for under an hour but in especially hot conditions, a sports drink can increase your performance—even though you could probably just drink water if the weather were mild.

RELATED: Sports Drinks for Athletes: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

One thing to keep in mind when you include sports drinks in your hydration routine is their serving size. Bonci recommends that for every additional hour after the initial hour of exercise, you need to consume at least 30 grams of carbs, which translates to about 16 ounces of a sports drink every additional hour. Many sports drinks come in 32-ounce bottles, so always be sure to check out the serving size before you start chugging!

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