Water vs. Sports Drinks: Which One Gets You More Hydrated
The plethora of information available on the best solution between water and sports drinks can easily confuse any runner. Thus, to navigate this subject we need to go back to basics. We need to understand if sports drinks are a better option than regular water. In order to do this we need to go back in time, way back.
Tracing sports and running in history
Running can be tied with the history of humans but one of the first recorded historical findings trace running in Ancient Greece. The Olympic Games, first held in 776 BC, provide a fascinating insight into the history of running. The only recorded sporting event for the first 13 editions of the Olympics was running. Throughout history running started to involve covering greater distances. The first recorded running event at the Olympics was a 209 yards sprint. What does this have to do with sports drinks? Well at that time there were no sports drinks around. We can imagine that recovery time for athletes became increasingly important as running developed through history.
Modern sports and hydration
Professionals and even amateur runners today cover greater distances. Plus, there is more information on proper hydration today than ever before. Even sports drinks companies give us studies that clearly show the benefits of their products. Basically after 60 minutes of high intensity training, running included, our body starts to lose water and electrolytes. Major electrolytes include: sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. The controversy here is on how to recover the body; or water versus sports drinks.
A balanced approach to nutrition is increasingly advised by governments around the world and sports drink manufacturers start to comply and to inform athletes straight from the label. They advise us to keep a balanced diet. This balanced approach can easily be seen at major competitions. High intensity sports like football, soccer, cycling and running are the best examples here. Athletes are given plain water at the beginning. During a break or a less intensive period of the event some athletes are given fruits like bananas, known to restore basic electrolytes in the body such as magnesium. Sports that include extra time, such as football or soccer are known to offer athletes sports drinks. What we can learn from this is that professionals use all available nutrients to keep themselves hydrated. They keep the recommended balanced approach.
What sports drinks companies tell us?
We have now established runners cover greater distances and this puts the body under more stress. Professionals fight this with a mix of methods. Sport drinks companies inform us on the various limitations of plain water hydration.
The first thing these companies tell us is that plain water does not replace electrolytes. This is true. Electrolytes are essential for proper muscle contraction.
The second thing manufactures tell us is that their drinks are quickly absorbed into the body replenishing the electrolytes lost with the sweat. This is where we need to keep in consideration that although most drinks do not contain more sodium than a slice of bread for example, this will still stimulate thirst for hydration and runners need to keep drinking to satisfy their thirstiness. Simply put, the more you drink the more you need to drink.
Not all sports drinks are created equal
We can categorize sports drinks intro 3 main groups: isotonic, hypertonic and hypotonic. Isotonic drinks contain similar levels of sugar and salt as the human body and are preferred by most athletes. Hypertonic drinks are preferred by those with demanding activities such as long distance running due to the higher concentration of sugar and salt. This carbohydrate solution is often used together with isotonic drinks. And finally hypotonic drinks that have a lower level of sugar and salt are used in sports with shorter time intervals such as gymnastics.
So what do we drink in the end?
Although many manufacturers would advise us to only use sports drinks we have to keep in mind that some runners only use plain water. Others say they feel invigorated and revitalized after drinking sports or energy boosting drinks.
It all comes down to sweating. Some runners sweat more, others sweat less and thus it would be unethical to recommend one solution for every person. The vast amount of findings available on hydration just cannot be applied as a general rule. Some studies argue we should only drink to thirst while other research advises on using a sweat loss calculator. There are many available options online and you can check them out even if just for fun. But you should also consider variables such as the temperature and humidity of the environment. These are huge factors to consider, with the extremes being dehydration or hyponatremia (low sodium level).
It can be tiring to follow all this advice but the good news is that once you get to know how your body reacts you will know what to drink. The more you run the better you will become at hydration solutions. An advice would be to just go with water, especially during the first 60 minutes of running. And then objectively run again, with the same conditions hydrating only with sports drinks. See what suits you best and it may even be a combination of both.
But keep in mind that not all nutrients from sports drinks are beneficial. There are studies showing that some added vitamins have no effect on your performance. Energy boosting drinks that contain caffeine are also avoidable. The truth is that the effect of these drinks is best seen in professional athletes that constantly push their results. An amateur runner may not see any improvement whatsoever. If you find that sports drinks are beneficial to your body then look for a trustworthy brand and if not, keep it simple, water has been fueling athletes since Ancient Greece.