There's no denying that sports drinks taste good. Companies spend millions of dollars annually to develop drinks that appeal to the masses while also ensuring that they're scientifically marketable for sports performance. The only problem is that consumers don't always have the full story on when to grab a sports drink and when to reach for water. This has led to a largely unnecessary boom in the sports drink industry while also encouraging the consumption of sweet, sugary drinks in kids. If you're at all confused about when to drink what, use these guidelines to help direct your decisions.
Ask most people why they drink sports drinks during and following exercise, and you'll probably hear them say that they want to replenish their electrolytes. Electrolytes are substances that become ions when dissolved in water. These ions conduct electrical activity and assist with osmosis. Without them, you can't maintain proper water balance, your muscles won't work properly and your neurons won't be able to communicate effectively.
Simply put: when electrolytes become depleted, your body's systems get screwy, which can lead to a number of symptoms ranging anywhere from muscle cramping and exhaustion to seizures and heart failure. It's no wonder that athletes want to replace the electrolytes they lose while sweating!
Here's the thing, though: the major electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and bicarbonate) are all found in foods. Most people can replenish their electrolytes following a workout by simply eating a healthy, balanced diet. That doesn't mean, however, that there isn't a place for sports drink consumption.
Hydration vs. electrolyte replenishment
When choosing a drink during and following activity, you need to ask yourself, "What's my primary need?" Sports drinks are infused with carbohydrates and electrolytes, which increase the drinks' osmolarity. The higher the osmolarity of a substance, the slower it's absorbed into the body. Long story, short: it will take you longer to rehydrate when drinking sports drinks than it will drinking water alone. If your primary need is to rehydrate, water is your best bet. If, however, you've been sweating profusely for a long period of time, or if your workout is long enough that it's begun to deplete your carbohydrate stores, you may need to turn to sports drinks to replenish those electrolytes, give yourself a few fast-acting carbohydrates for immediate energy and improve your body's ability to perform.
When to choose water
The length and type of exercise you're performing will largely dictate your needs. Choose water if:
- You're exercising at any intensity level for less than an hour
- You have sufficient time to replenish your carbohydrates and electrolytes before your next workout (i.e., you're working out once a day or less)
- You're working out for longer than an hour, but at a low- or moderate-intensity level (i.e. you're walking on the treadmill for a couple hours)
- You're performing intermittent, low- to moderate-intensity activity for longer than an hour (i.e. a softball, volleyball or flag football game)
When to choose a sports drink
A few situations where sports drinks are appropriate include:
- Sustained, high-intensity cardiovascular exercise that lasts longer than an hour (i.e. long runs or bike rides)
- When you're training for an event and you don't have time to sufficiently rehydrate and refuel between training sessions (i.e. two-a-day practices)
- When you're participating in an event or tournament and you don't have time to sufficiently rehydrate and refuel between games (i.e. a basketball tournament with back-to-back games)
- When you're performing high-intensity intermittent activity for an hour or longer in an environment that causes you to sweat excessively (i.e. soccer practices in the Texas heat)
After a hard exercise routine, it's important to ensure that you've completely replenished your fluids before your next workout. The easiest way to gauge this is by keeping an eye on the color of your urine. Clear or pale urine indicate that you're pretty well hydrated, while dark urine indicates you need to keep drinking. If you're finding it hard to force yourself to drink a lot of water after your workout, go ahead and grab a sports drink. The sweet flavor will "help the medicine go down," enabling you to continue rehydrating.
A tasty alternative: Nuun
One of the downsides to sports drinks is that many of them are packed with largely unnecessary carbohydrates. The boost of carbs can be helpful (and even necessary) if you're training for a marathon or triathlon, but for most people, it's just added sugar that increases a drink's osmolarity and slows down hydration. One of the coolest sports drink alternatives currently on the market are the electrolyte-infused Nuun tablets. These tablets are designed specifically for hydration during and following exercise, and unlike most sports drinks, they're sugar-free and contain only eight calories. All you have to do is drop one of the quarter-sized tablets into 16-ounces of water, wait two minutes for it to dissolve, and you have an excellent electrolyte drink ready to be consumed.
Nuun comes in flavors like Grape, Fruit Punch and Lemon-Lime, making it perfect for the person who wants to rehydrate, but doesn't like drinking plain water. Another huge benefit is that you can reduce waste by skipping the purchase of disposable sports drink bottles, simply using your own reusable water bottle to dissolve the tablets. A four-sleeve pack of Nuun tablets costs $24.00, and with 12 tablets per sleeve, the cost per tablet is only $.50, a real steal compared to individual sports bottles. Purchase Nuun online or find a retailer near you by visiting the Nuun website.
Header image credit: Clean WalMart, http://www.flickr.com/photos/cleanwalmart/374245972/sizes/z/in/photostream/