On The Table

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Should You Trade Your Sports Drink for Water?

During or following a workout, you may reach for a Gatorade or other water enhancers with good intentions. But are sports drinks good for you and do they offer any sort of benefit?

Sports beverages, including electrolyte drinks, are quite popular right now. However, many people sip these drinks without meaningful intention, which can ultimately hinder health goals 

So when is it appropriate to choose a sports drink with electrolytes? Let this serve as a guide to correctly consuming electrolyte drinks for the best performance outcomes.

Electrolyte Review

In the nutrition sphere, electrolytes are essential minerals that create an electrical charge when dissolved in water. Positively charged electrolytes are called cations while negatively charged electrolytes are anions.

In general, electrolytes are found in every cell in the body. They aid nerve, muscle, and blood pressure function and help maintain fluid and acid-base (pH) balance.

There are seven main electrolytes including:

• Sodium
• Potassium
• Magnesium
• Calcium
• Chloride
• Phosphate
• Bicarbonate

However, only sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and chloride to some extent can be directly consumed from food and drink. Typically, sodium chloride is added to sports drinks to account for both sodium and chloride. 

Of the four main electrolytes, sodium is best known for proper fluid balance. Potassium is essential for muscle contraction and heart contraction, magnesium for transmitting nerve impulses, heart rhythm, and balancing blood sugar; and calcium for heart and muscle contraction.

In terms of sports drinks, electrolytes are added to enhance athletic performance by ensuring proper and efficient heart and muscle contraction. This ensures sufficient blood flow to muscles and attempts to prevent or minimize muscle cramping, soreness, and fatigue. 

But, are these types of drinks always necessary? Not likely.

Sports Drinks Versus Water

Which is best? It depends. Use this info as a guide to determine if you should drink a sports drinks or water, as well as if 


Numerous factors dictate the need for electrolyte drinks or sports drinks that contain electrolytes plus other substances like sugar versus water.

First of all, pure water is the drink of choice for maintaining hydration on a daily basis. Although some marketing ploys tout good ole tap water is insufficient for hydration needs, this is not accurate. The general population and many high-caliber athletes can optimize performance solely by staying hydrated with pure water.

General water recommendations suggest consuming 64 ounces (oz) of water per day. If possible, additional guidelines state regular exercisers should drink:

• An additional 16 oz of water leading up to the activity
• 120 oz immediately before exercise
• 4-8 oz every 15 to 20 minutes during exercise

Not to mention, if sports nutrition is on point, only drinking water will still aid athletic performance. Water helps reduce muscle cramps, headaches, and nausea associated with intense endurance activity.

If this is the case, when are sports drinks appropriate for hydration?

Sports Drink

First of all, it is important to distinguish between sports drinks and electrolyte drinks without sugar. Electrolyte drinks are generally considered one type of sports beverage, but not all sports drinks contain added electrolytes. While many sports drinks like Gatorade and Propel contain electrolytes, they also contain other substances like sugar.

There is a time and place for each of these.

Pure electrolyte drinks including sodium, potassium, magnesium, and potentially calcium are likely most effective when consumed within an hour before and/or after endurance athletic performance. This ensures adequacy beforehand and offers replenishment afterward.

Note that some people will drink an electrolyte beverage before or after consuming alcohol to optimize hydration and reduce hangovers as well.

Sports drinks that contain electrolytes and sugar or carbohydrate are only recommended for endurance athletes exercising for greater than one hour or in hot and humid conditions when electrolytes are lost through sweat. Nonetheless, some athletes only consume these helpful substances on a hard workout or race day to allow for natural body adaptations otherwise.

Sports nutrition experts suggest athletes consume 30-60 grams of carbohydrate every 30-45 min of exercise for anything over 60-90 minutes. Thus, sports drinks, goos, or gels can be an effective way to obtain necessary electrolytes and sugar. Ultimately, this combo of carbs and electrolytes keeps the body working efficiently and reduces the risk of fatigue, cramps, headache, nausea, and bonking.

Keep in mind that the average exerciser, especially those doing more weight lifting or circuit styles of workouts, rarely needs an electrolyte or sports drink. This often still serves true even if the duration extends beyond an hour. 

While this sort of exercise is wonderfully beneficial for overall health, it does not tend to fatigue muscles as quickly. It is also not as intense on the mind or heart as long endurance activity. 

On occasion, a powerlifter performing an activity for longer than 90 minutes may need a sports drink or food that offers carbs and some electrolytes to maintain performance. 

All in all, while sports drinks including electrolytes will likely benefit endurance exercisers on long or intense workout and race days, they are largely unnecessary for the average exerciser. In fact, regularly consuming sports drinks that contain sugar or carbohydrate is associated with weight gain, especially amongst non-exercisers. 

Pure water for the win on most occasions!

How to Choose an Electrolyte Drink

Not all electrolyte drinks are created the same and various factors should be considered when choosing.

1. Which electrolytes are provided?

Many well-known sports drinks like Gatorade only include sodium (+chloride) and potassium. However, calcium and magnesium also play an important role in exercise performance. So, some people might want to choose an electrolyte drink that supplies all five effective electrolytes: sodium chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium.

Newer brands like LMNT, UCAN, NUUN, and Ultima include all of the above.

2. Does the product supply an effective dose?

An electrolyte beverage that only includes 20-50 milligrams (mg) of electrolytes typically is not going to cut in for optimal performance. While each brand creates its own version of optimal ratios of the electrolytes, one should choose based on individual needs.

For example, a marathon runner will need much more electrolyte replenishment than a powerlifter exercising for the same duration. In general, the longer and more intense the exercise, the more electrolytes are needed.

And for reference, the popular Gatorade includes 270 mg sodium and 55 mg potassium. LMNT consists of 1,000 mg sodium, 200 mg potassium, and 60 mg magnesium. 

3. Does the sports product contain added sugars?

Sometimes, added sugars are beneficial for performance, but oftentimes it is unnecessary and may actually cause more harm than good. The added sugars in these drinks are often simple sugars and analogs that can lead to GI upset for many. These sugars rapidly pull water into the gut, which can lead to cramping and the dreaded diarrhea mid-performance.

Plus, for those who drink sports drinks outside of exercise performance, added sugars in sports drinks are a huge contributor to weight gain and obesity.

Those who need to replenish carbs during performance may still benefit from taking pure electrolytes and a different sports product to obtain carbohydrates. Many current sports products contain different forms of sugar that are more slowly released. No matter what, it is most important to practice fueling with electrolytes and/or carb products before the day of performance.

4. Does it contain anything else?

In addition to added sugars, some sports drinks and even electrolyte products contain additives and fillers. While these additions may not add extra calories or cause dumping syndrome, many people are still sensitive to them. It is always smart to choose food and drink products with minimal ingredients, and choosing an electrolyte product is no different.

Look out for additives and fillers such as maltodextrins (type of sugar), artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, soy lecithin, gums, and carrageenan.

5. Also consider bulk versus portable packages.

Finally, it's important to consider the use of electrolytes. Generally speaking, buying bulk items is more cost-effective than singular packages. However, it’s obviously not wise to carry an entire tub of electrolyte powder during a marathon or the like. 

Overall, consider when, where and how you'll be consuming the electrolytes to make the right decision. Also, remember that many electrolyte powders need to be mixed with water. 

Sports Drinks vs Water: The Bottom Line

Water is the undoubted winner for general hydration purposes. However, certain situations may benefit from added electrolytes. 

Those who sweat a lot, exercise in hot conditions, or exercise for longer than 60 minutes at an intense rate will likely benefit from consuming additional sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and carbohydrate. The electrolytes contribute to nerve communication and muscle contraction and can lead to more efficient athletic performance. 

Choosing an electrolyte drink that also contains added sugars or other performance-enhancing substances, like caffeine, depends on individual goals and experiences. 

Generally speaking, the average exerciser does not need any sort of sports drink on a regular basis. A sufficient amount of electrolytes can be consumed from whole foods, especially plant-based foods with high water content like fruits and veggies.

Working with a sports professional can help deduce whether a sports drink with electrolytes will truly benefit you or not.