sport drinks vs water: which suits your hydration needs best?
Sport Nutrition

Sports Drinks vs Water: Which Suits Your Hydration Needs Best?

Are sports drinks better than water?

When it comes to working out, engaging in physical activity, or playing a sport, many athletes opt for a sports drink like Gatorade or Powerade rather than water to keep themselves hydrated.

You may have seen the commercials for sports drinks, where a tired athlete is instantly rehydrated and refreshed after taking a sip of the bright-coloured beverage. Although these sports drinks are marketed towards athletes, they aren’t the only ones drinking them. 

Some people choose sports drinks over water in their day-to-day lives, because they like the taste or because of perceived health benefits. But who really needs to be drinking sports drinks and who doesn’t? What kind and how much should you be drinking? And should you be adding additional ingredients to your drink?

What exactly is a sports drink? And what are they used for?

Most of us know how important it is to stay hydrated while being active. While water is an obvious choice, it is sometimes debated whether a sports drink might do the job better! 

When performing an activity, water and electrolytes are lost through our sweat. Sports drinks provide us with fluids to rehydrate, replace lost electrolytes, and provide us with energy in the form of carbohydrates.

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals including sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium that are essential for maintaining the body’s fluid balance. They also are key for nerve, muscle, and brain functioning. Sodium (salt) is the primary ingredient lost in sweat, followed by potassium. Magnesium and calcium are lost in much smaller quantities so they are often not included in sports drink formulas.

What are the key ingredients in Sports Drinks?

Water is the main ingredient in sports drinks, followed by carbohydrates and electrolytes. Carbohydrates are often in the form of sugars like glucose, sucrose, and fructose. Sports drinks typically contain 6-8% carbs, however, some brands make low or zero carb options. The main electrolytes found in sports drinks are sodium and potassium because these are the primary electrolytes lost in our sweat.


Should you be drinking sports drinks?

Which athletes should consider drinking sports drinks?

Sports drinks may be more beneficial than water in certain situations. If you are engaging in long lasting, intense activity over 1 hour long, and/or sweat a lot, you may benefit from a sports drink!

Examples include long-distance runners, cyclists, triathletes, or team sport athletes playing in tournaments with multiple games per day.

Who doesn’t need them?

Sports drinks are unnecessary for most other situations. This includes athletes performing light to moderate exercise for less than an hour and those who are weight training. This is because they are usually not exercising long enough or at an intense enough level to need a sports drink. Your regular meals and water will provide you with plenty of fluids, fuel, and electrolytes!

A sports drink is also unnecessary for most children participating in sports. A balanced diet gives them the carbohydrates and electrolytes they need to stay fueled. That being said, youth athletes engaging in endurance activity, or tournaments/multiple training sessions per day should consider using them just like adult athletes would!

How much should you be drinking?

It is recommended for athletes performing continuous, high-effort activity without rest for 1-2 hours to consume up to 30g or 2-3 tbsp of carbohydrates per hour or about 16 fluid ounces of a sports drink with 6% carbohydrates.

As the duration of activity increases, athletes may benefit from an increase in carbohydrates, so 2-3 hour sessions can equal up to 60g or 4-6 tbsp of carbohydrates per hour.

Tolerance to sports drinks can also be a challenge for some athletes, as the sugar content can lead to GI distress while exercising. Slowly building up tolerance over time can reduce symptoms and lead to better fueling during training!

It is important to note that these recommendations do not apply to non-intense activities, and that there are other factors that may increase or decrease your requirements, such as how much you sweat or the humidity and temperature!

Gatorade vs Powerade vs Powdered Mixes

Is there a difference between Gatorade and Powerade?

Some people say that Powerade tastes sweeter than Gatorade. This is due to the fact that Powerade is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), whereas Gatorade contains dextrose, which is chemically identical to sugar. These sweeteners are nutritionally very similar, which means the amount of carbohydrates they provide is comparable. 

In terms of micronutrients, Gatorade contains slightly more calories and sodium, whereas Powerade contains more vitamins including magnesium, niacin, B6and B12. Although there are these slight differences, there is no evidence to suggest that one is better than the other.

What about powdered mixes?

Powdered mixes can be sold in single pre-measured packets or in bulk containers, and are available from a wide variety of brands. Whichever one you decide to use, if mixed correctly, there is little difference in nutrition compared to premixed drinks. While the nutrient content can vary to an extent, the mixes can be much less costly than pre-made options. It just might be a great way to save some money in the long run!

Supplementing with BCAAs

BCAAs have become increasingly more popular among gym-goers as they are promoted to provide a variety of benefits. They are often mixed into a sports drink or water and used before or during a workout to prevent fatigue and boost muscle building after exercise. 

What exactly are BCAAs?

Branched chain amino acids (BCAA) in the form of powder can be added to sports drinks to provide extra protein. BCAAs include 3 essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine.

Leucine especially, is known to help regulate protein metabolism by promoting muscle protein synthesis and suppress muscle protein breakdown. People will often consume BCAAs to help improve muscle mass and strength, reduce muscle soreness after a workout, and help with fat loss.

Are they safe to consume?

If consumed in excess, they may interfere with protein metabolism. However, BCAAs are essential and our body needs them; therefore they are safe to take in reasonable doses. Just don’t make BCAAs your only source of protein in your diet!

Should I be adding BCAAs to my sports drink?

By consuming an adequate amount of protein from food sources, you can get enough of these amino acids. For example, they are found in chicken, eggs, tuna, peanuts and cottage cheese. However, for endurance athletes who are training for prolonged periods of time without these types of foods, there may be a role for BCAAs. Supplementing with BCAAs for these athletes can prevent muscle loss that can occur with prolonged training, and provide and alternative fuel source for working muscles.


What about homemade sports drinks?

If you do decide to consume sports drinks, consider a homemade one!  The ingredients can be modified to your taste preference, and they’re just as effective at keeping athletes hydrated as pre-made versions.

To make a homemade sports drink, you’ll need a base of water and coconut water. Coconut water is a great way to hydrate and replenish electrolytes as it contains both potassium and magnesium. 

Next up, you’ll need some 100% fruit juice. This is where you can customize your drink to the flavor you want! If you like your drink sweet, you can add honey, maple syrup or cane sugar. (caution: honey contains large amounts of fructose and can contribute to GI distress for some athletes. If you often run into tummy trouble, use a different sweeter!)

And last but not least, you’ll need salt! This is a key ingredient for helping you retain the fluid in your sports drink. 

The recipe below provides a 6% carbohydrate solution, similar to store-bought sports drinks.

Lemon Lime Electrolyte Drink

Yield: 4 cups

Ingredients

  • 2 cups cold water or herbal tea
  • 1 ½ cups coconut water
  • ¼ cup lime juice
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp sweetener (honey, maple syrup, cane sugar)
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt

Instructions

  1. Whisk all ingredients together.
  2. Adjust juice or sweetener to desired level.
  3. Chill and serve!

The Bottom Line

There are many different sports drinks and mixes available, but there really is no significant difference in nutrition when you compare different brands and mixes. Additional ingredients like BCAAs aren’t always necessary to add to your drinks, as they can just as easily be consumed by eating foods with adequate protein.

Sports drinks may be more beneficial than water in certain situations, but unless you are engaging in long-lasting, high-intensity activity, water is the best option for staying hydrated!


About the Author: Ashley is a recent graduate from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Science in Human Nutritional Sciences. She is excited to begin a dietetic internship in the fall to further her knowledge and gain valuable experience in the field of dietetics. Ashley is passionate about cooking and baking. When she’s not in the kitchen, you can find her playing volleyball or taking her two dogs to the park! A balanced lifestyle is extremely important to Ashley, and one day, she hopes to help make an impact on other’s lives by helping them reach their nutrition goals.

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