Water Vs Sports Drinks – Pros and Cons


Staying hydrated during a run helps to keep the body performing at its best. But there are times when you may need to use a sports drink. Sports drinks have become a popular go-to drink for both recreational and professional athletes.

But when should you drink plain water and when should you reach for a sports drink?

Both water and sports drinks can help you stay hydrated, and while water is the preferred method for maintaining hydration, it may not be enough to replenish electrolytes.

Let’s take a look at the differences, and when you should only drink water or when you should have a sports drink.

What is the importance of water?

Water is important for the human body to function and up to 60% of body weight in an adult is water. Over 90% of our blood plasma is water. It’s the plasma that is responsible for carrying proteins, hormones and nutrients throughout the body when it needs it.

This is because water has a unique quality. It’s able to dissolve substances and chemicals that are used in biological processes. When we’re physically active, we may not notice how much water we lose. But your performance can be reduced by up to 25% if you lose 2% of body weight through urinating, breathing, and sweating.

For every hour of exercise, one can lose up to 34 ounces—one liter—of fluid. On days where temperature and humidity rise, a person can lose up to 101 ounces—3 liters—of fluid for every hour of exercise. If we had to weigh a liter of water, it would weigh approximately 2 pounds. This means a person could lose between 2 to 6 pounds of water weight in an hour.

What do we need water for?

Our bodies need water for a number of biological processes, as well as cushioning the brain and spinal cord. Water is also vital for the production of neurotransmitters and hormones.

Water is found in cartilage, which lubricates the joints throughout the body. If a person doesn’t sufficiently hydrate on a daily basis, this will reduce the ability for the joints to absorb shock, which can lead to joint pain or injuries.

When we exercise, our muscles need more oxygen. It is delivered by the blood, which consists of 90% water. Severe dehydration can cause the blood to thicken, which can increase blood pressure.

If you look at the skin, you’ll find that water is stored in the middle layer—the dermis. As your body temperatures rises, the water comes to the surface as sweat. Dehydration affects your body’s ability to cool down, and can lead to heat strain.

The body uses water to keep the mucosal linings in the lungs thin. This helps with breathing and other lung functions. Our kidneys help to regulate fluids as well as the removal of waste from the blood. If you’re not drinking enough water, it can lead to kidney stones or permanent kidney damage.

When we run, we tend to breathe through our mouths and our bodies will produce more saliva to try and offset the drying effect. Water is needed to produce saliva, as well as the mucus in our noses.

If you’re starting to dehydrate, you’ll notice that your body stops producing saliva in an effort to conserve water.

What are signs of dehydration?

When running long distances or during intense workouts, our bodies may need more than just plain water for us to perform at our best. If you’re not hydrating efficiently, you could find that your focus and endurance levels decrease.

Proper hydration isn’t rocket science. But plenty of runner let themselves get dehydrated. The symptoms of dehydration vary depending on if it’s mild, moderate, or severe.

You could experience the following symptoms for mild to moderate dehydration:

  • Tiredness—Fatigue
  • Feeling thirsty or an increased thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Dry skin
  • Headache
  • Muscle cramps
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Reduction in mucus and tear production
  • Decreased urination

Severe dehydration can have the above symptoms, as well as the following:

  • Your body stops producing sweat
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Low blood pressure
  • Sunken eyes
  • Fainting
  • Surface wrinkles and loss of skin elasticity
  • Excessive thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion and irritability
  • Dark colored urine

What are the recommendations for water intake during exercise?

You should make sure that you’re hydrated before your workout. You should drink at least 15 to 20 ounces of water at least an hour before you begin. Then 15 minutes before your workout, drink 8 to 10 ounces of water.

During your workout, you want to drink at least 8 ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes.

The amount of water that you’ll need to drink during exercise will be determined by a few factors. Take into consideration your physical activity level, age, gender, size, and how much you sweat.

You may need to increase your water intake if you’re going to be exercising outdoors, in very hot weather where you’ll be sweating more.

A person who walks once or twice a week will need less water than a runner who is training for a marathon. A person who leads a sedentary lifestyle would need less water than both the runner and walker.

When to consider a sports drink over water

There are going to be times when you’ll need more than just plain water to hydrate you. If you’re going to be training or running for longer than 60 minutes, you’ll need to replace vital electrolytes—sodium, potassium, calcium and chloride—that are lost through sweat.

One of the best ways to replace lost electrolytes is by using a sports drink. These products are designed to rapidly replace fluids and electrolytes. They will also increase the glucose—sugar—in the body.

Before you reach for a sports drink, read the label and make sure that it’s going to be best for your needs. Ideally, you want a sports drink that’s going to provide approximately the following per 8 ounce serving:

  • 14 grams of carbohydrates
  • 28 milligrams of potassium
  • 100 milligrams of sodium

Some sports drinks contain protein, which can help with muscle recovery. But this is neither typical, nor necessary for hydration. If you’re going to take a sports drink that contains protein, make sure the beverage has a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. This will provide optimal recovery.

Avoid sports drinks that are carbonated, as they can upset your stomach.

On days when you’re doing a light workout or it’s your rest day then it would be best to hydrate with plain water.

Why are sports drinks good to restore glycogen levels?

When you’re running long distances or doing intense workouts that last longer than 60 minutes, your body needs more glycogen. Glycogen is how your body stores carbohydrates as an energy source for your muscles.

The ingredients in sports drinks are quickly absorbed by the small intestine. The carbohydrate in the sports drink will quickly be converted to glycogen, which will fuel your muscles and allow you to perform at a higher intensity.

Electrolytes are necessary to regulate the muscles and nerves, which help to prevent cramps and muscle fatigue. The water will help to keep you hydrated and keep your body at its optimal performance.

When to choose sports drinks

Depending on the intensity and duration of the sporting activity that you’re doing, you may need a sports drink.

If you’re going to be doing an activity that requires endurance, such as running a half or full marathon, an ultra marathon, triathlon or a duathlon, then a sports drink would be better than just drinking plain water.

If you’re going to be doing an intense training session where you go for a long run or bike ride, then taking a sports drink with you would be best.

Any sporting activities where you’ll be physically active for longer than 60 minutes—and may sweat a lot—like hockey, football, tennis or soccer, then a sports drink would help to replace the fluids better than water.

When you go hiking, the humidity and elevation may have you sweating more and having a sports drink will help you replace the electrolytes and hydrate you.

There may be times when you’re not training where a sports drink would be better than plain water. If you’re spending a day working in the garden or if you’re at a construction site all day doing manual labor, then you may not realize that you’ve lost electrolytes.

But if your electrolytes are depleted or are low it could lead to muscle cramps, changes in blood pressure, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, feeling fatigued and you could also experience nausea or vomiting.

Alternative drinks for runners

There are few benefits to drinking chilled—cold—water especially if you’re going to be running in humidity and heat, and runners will find that their core body temperature is slower to rise. It can also help you exercise for longer without feeling fatigued. You can also drink chilled water at any time.

If you’re looking for a drink to help with recovery, then chocolate milk would be a great alternative. It will provide better muscle protein production due to the nutrients that it contains than a carb-only drink.

If you’re looking for a drink that will help replace electrolytes, you could try coconut water and some lemon juice. Coconut water with lemon would be great as a post-run drink and if you want something for a shorter run, try Maple water.

For an energy boost, you can have a cup of tea or coffee about 45 minutes before your run. Although the caffeine content is low, it will still help provide an energy boost for your run.

When you’re going to have a hard workout or an intense run, then try either beet juice or tart cherry juice. This will increase the production of nitric oxide which will improve blood flow to the muscles, getting more oxygen and nutrients to the muscle which will lead to better performance.

If you’re going to be training or exercising for longer than 60 minutes, sports drinks are a great way to replenish glycogen levels and electrolytes while keeping you hydrated.

Photo of author


Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.