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Water vs Sports Drinks: Hydration Guide for Exercise


Staying hydrated during exercise is crucial for optimal performance and overall health. While some people swear by sports drinks, others argue that plain water is sufficient. So, how do you know when to reach for one over the other? This comprehensive guide will explore the benefits and drawbacks of water and sports drinks and provide the information needed to make an informed decision based on your unique needs and circumstances.

Understanding the Different Types of Athletes

According to Erin Famulare, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist, hydration requirements can vary depending on the type of athlete. Some athletes focus on enhancing their performance, while others need proper hydration during exercise. For example, recreational softball players have different fluid requirements than Olympic marathon runners. Considering these factors is essential when deciding between water and sports drinks.

When to Reach for a Sports Drink

Sports drinks are formulated to provide carbohydrates, electrolytes, and hydration during intense exercise. These drinks typically contain sugar, sodium, and potassium, quickly and conveniently replenishing lost nutrients. Athletes engaging in high-level, long-duration sports, especially in hot conditions, may benefit from consuming sports drinks during their workouts. The carbohydrates and electrolytes in sports drinks help fuel the body and replace what is lost through sweating and calorie burning.

The Unhealthy Side of Sports Drinks

While sports drinks benefit athletes, they may not be the best option for everyone. Many sports drinks contain high amounts of sugar, calories, and sodium. Water may be a more suitable choice for individuals watching their calorie intake and aiming to limit sugar and sodium in their diet. Considering your overall dietary goals and needs is essential when deciding whether to consume sports drinks or drink water.

The Benefits of Water

Water remains the gold standard for hydration. It is easily accessible, calorie-free, and essential for optimal bodily functions. Water is ideal for hydration during exercise because it effectively quenches thirst without adding unnecessary calories or artificial ingredients. Additionally, water is widely available and doesn’t require additional resources, such as plastic bottles. For the average person engaging in moderate exercise, water is likely sufficient to meet their hydration needs.

Exploring Other Hydration Choices

While water is the go-to option for hydration, choices can provide hydration and additional benefits. These options include:

1. Nuun Tablets

Nuun tablets are dissolvable tablets that can be added to water to create a hydrating beverage. They contain electrolytes and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, chloride, sodium, and potassium. With only 15 calories and 1 gram of added sugar, Nuun tablets offer a low-calorie alternative to sports drinks while providing essential hydration and nutrients.

2. A Splash of Juice

For those who prefer flavored beverages, adding 100% fruit juice to water can enhance the taste without compromising hydration. This option adds a natural sweetness and provides some additional vitamins and minerals.

3. Light Sports Drinks

For individuals watching their calorie and sugar intake, “zero” or diet versions of sports drinks can be a suitable option. These drinks offer the electrolytes without the added calories and sugars in regular sports drinks. They can still provide the necessary hydration and replenish electrolytes without the unwanted extras.

4. Coconut Water

Coconut water is a natural source of electrolytes and can be a refreshing alternative to sports drinks. However, it’s essential to check the labels as coconut water can also contain calories. Opt for brands with no added sugars or limit your intake to avoid consuming excess calories.

Hydration is vital, and various options are available to meet your needs and preferences. Experiment with different choices to find what works best for you.

The Importance of Staying Well-Hydrated

Regardless of the beverage you choose, it is crucial to prioritize hydration for overall health and well-being. As Erin Famulare, RDN, emphasizes, staying well-hydrated is one of the best things you can do for your health. Whether you opt for plain water, sports drinks, or other hydration choices, ensuring adequate fluid intake is essential for supporting your body’s functions and maintaining peak performance.


There is no clear winner in the battle between water and sports drinks. The choice ultimately depends on your individual needs, goals, and preferences. Sports drinks can be beneficial during intense, prolonged exercise, providing the necessary carbohydrates and electrolytes for optimal performance. However, water remains the best choice for everyday hydration or for those monitoring their sugar and calorie intake. Explore other hydration options such as Nuun tablets, juice splashes, light sports drinks, and coconut water to find what suits you best. Remember, the key is to stay well-hydrated and make choices that align with your overall health and wellness goals.


Q1: Can sports drinks be used as a substitute for water during exercise?

A1: Sports drinks can be used as a substitute for water during intense or prolonged exercise to replenish electrolytes and provide energy.

Q2: Are there any natural alternatives to sports drinks?

A2: Yes, coconut water and homemade electrolyte drinks using natural ingredients like fruit juice, honey, and salt can serve as alternatives to commercial sports drinks.

Q3: Can drinking too much water during exercise be harmful?

A3: Yes, overhydration, or hyponatremia, can occur when excessive amounts of water are consumed without replenishing electrolytes, particularly during prolonged exercise sessions.

Q4: What should I drink before exercising to stay hydrated?

A4: Water is the best drink to satisfy thirst and replace fluid lost during exercise. It’s recommended to drink water before starting training.

Q5: Do sports drinks improve performance during exercise?

A5: Sports drinks can sometimes improve performance and provide necessary hydration, particularly during prolonged or intense exercise sessions. However, for most people, water is sufficient for hydration most of the time.

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