The Rumor: Sports drinks have magical restorative properties that plain water doesn’t.
Face it: You want to be the kind of person who needs a sports drink. In your mind’s eye, you picture yourself wiping away the huge beads of sweat that are dripping down your forehead as you climb Mt. Rainier (or Mt. Kilimanjaro, or hell, Mt. Everest) on your superlight bike. Or maybe you’re emerging from the ocean waves and tearing off your wetsuit so you can sprint the final 10K of a grueling and super-impressive-to-the-ladies triathlon. Someone hands you a sports drink, and you chug it down, bicep bulging. Ahh!
The Verdict: Water is the healthiest choice for non-athletes.
If you’re like most people, you’re probably not working out intensely enough to need a sports drink. (Actually, if you’re like most people, you probably only drink sports drinks when you are so hung over you want to die, and you are desperately trying to get hydrated before you hurl.) In any event, a sports drink is just an expensive way to get the water you need -- and the sugar and salt that you probably don’t need. “It’s like a half-strength soft drink with a dash of salt,” says registered dietician Nancy Clark, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. “Many people who buy sports drinks don’t need them. Kids don’t need them. Nor do construction workers. The average person who exercises doesn’t need a sports drink.”
The average sports drink has about 100 calories from sugar, and a little over 200 milligrams of sodium, in 16 ounces. That’s about half the calories and three times the sodium of a soft drink. For whom could such a drink be healthy? “They’re designed for endurance athletes who are exercising for... an hour-and-a-half or more,” says Clark.
If you are exercising intensely for a long period of time -- especially outside in the heat, and extra especially if you happen to sweat a lot -- a half-strength soda with a dash of salt is just what your body needs. It’s got water to rehydrate, sugar to replenish the blood sugar in your veins (and the glycogen, aka storage carbs, in your muscles) and salt to keep those electrolytes humming. “If you are running a marathon, you need water and fuel to maintain your blood sugar levels,” says Clark. And the more you sweat, the more you’ll need salt to replenish lost sodium.
“I work with athletes who sweat extraordinary amounts,” says exercise physiologist Michael Bergeron, Ph.D., a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine. The average person may take in 2,000 or 3,000 milligrams of sodium in a day, he says, “but I see adult athletes who can sweat out 2,000 or 3,000 milligrams in an hour.” For some endurance athletes, he even recommends adding salt to sports drinks, to help prevent cramping.
Sports drinks are especially handy for endurance exercise in the heat. “The hotter your body gets, the more it shifts from burning fats to carbs,” says Bergeron. “So you’ll likely feel fatigued earlier when exercising in the heat.” The simple carbs in a sports drink get into your system quickly to replenish the blood sugar levels so you have energy to keep going. On the other hand, if you were to eat a snack or candy, it would take 30 minutes or longer for that to boost your blood sugar. You just wouldn't get the energy in time to keep you going up that hill.
Now consider a more normal bout of exercise. You’ll still need water and calories and carbs and sodium. But if you have a small snack before you exercise, you’ll get the carbs and sodium, and you can wash it down with nature’s thirst quencher: water. No need for a sports drink. Did you sweat some? Great! You just lost some of that sodium that your body didn’t need.
“What you eat before you exercise lasts an hour or an hour and a half,” says Clark. “About an hour before you exercise, have a couple hundred calories -- a snack. In the morning, if you have a chunk of banana and a swig of water, that’s 100 or 200 calories.” She likes carb/protein combos like cereal and milk, banana and peanut butter, cheese and bread, a granola bar. Then, if you get thirsty before, during or after exercising, drink water. Zero calories -- and it’s pretty good at the hydration thing.
It’s particularly unwise to chug sports drinks if you’re working out to lose weight. (Why drink all those calories back?) According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, sports drinks aren’t for kids, either -- except for those who are truly engaged in endurance sports. Whatever your age, if you start drinking a sports drink, all that salt might make you thirsty... so you’ll drink more. Also, some people have GI reactions to these sugary drinks during exercise (not something you want to discover on your 17th mile).
So, go ahead and indulge in those I’m-a-badass-athlete-chugging-a-sports-drink fantasies if you want to. Just drink some water while you do it.