Debunked by a Doc: Sports Drinks

A Guide to Rehydrating

Hydration is a huge part of safe exercise. As you sweat, your body loses fluid and electrolytes. A wide variety of sports drinks and energy drinks can help replace these losses as well as help prevent fatigue and increase performance.

“Sports drinks are scientifically designed to replace fluids, carbohydrates, electrolytes, protein or any combination,” says Brian Babka, MD, a Sports Medicine specialist with Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group. “But they are not necessarily meant to be used as a replacement for water.”

Like soft drinks, if consumed too often as a daily beverage, the sugar and calories in sports drinks can add up. For most activities less than 60 minutes, water is a sufficient fluid replacement. When you’re active for more than an hour, replacing electrolytes becomes more important and crucial to performance, especially in the heat or for long durations.

Moreover, all sports drinks are not created equal, nor are they perfectly designed. Specialty drinks are suited to different workouts, and the latest trend in high-level sports performance is individualized fluid replacement based on athlete needs, intensity and duration of sport.

For the recreational athlete, Dr. Babka breaks down your options:

  • Coconut Water: A natural way of replacing fluid and electrolytes.
  • Chocolate Milk: Underused as a good recovery drink with a good ratio of carbohydrates to protein. However, it does contain dairy, which can be a problem for some athletes.
  • Sports Drinks: Sports drinks replace fluid, carbohydrates and electrolytes in an easily accessible and digestible way. They can also delay fatigue during longer aerobic activity.
  • Energy Drinks: Beware of the caffeine and its potential side effects. Caffeine, in some instances, can have a sports performance benefit, but it is likely more detrimental in younger athletes and usually not needed for recreational athletes.
  • Powder Mix: Can be a great and affordable way to utilize all of the above. It can also be an easy and cost-effective way to add lean protein (for example, whey) to the diet.

Bottom line?

“Water is still the most acceptable fluid replacement for most athletes and most exercise,” says Dr. Babka. “It’s simple, cheap and extremely effective.”