Sports-drink commercials feature famous athletes and other celebrities chugging away at the advertisers’ beverages and then cranking up their workouts to an epic pace. Watching those messages can leave you feeling that if you’re not drinking up, you may as well turn off the treadmill and climb off the elliptical.
But—well, do turn off the treadmill for a minute. Before you assume you need a sports drink every time you go for a jog or hit the gym, remember what these brightly colored beverages are designed to do.
Electrolytes, fluid, fuel
You already know that workouts cause you to lose fluid in the form of sweat, but fluid isn’t the only thing you need to replace. Electrolytes – sodium, potassium, calcium, chlorine, magnesium, and phosphates – help create the electrical impulses involved in making your muscles and nerves function properly. When your electrolytes levels fall too low, you get muscles spasms and cramps, you feel dizzy, and your head starts to ache.
Sports drinks also run heavy on the sugar, but they do so for a reason. They’re designed to help you stay fueled up during a long, hard workout, not as something to sip all day long while you work at your desk or when you put in a quick workout on the treadmill. They also can contain artificial flavors and colors, which you may prefer to avoid.
The acid test
Another consideration with sports drinks is their acid pH. Water comes in at a pH of 7.0, which is neutral, but some popular sports drinks range from a pH of 2.9-2.6, right around the same range as diet and non-diet sodas. With a combination of acid pH and between 5-10 teaspoons of sugar, these drinks can erode the enamel on your teeth if they stay in your mouth without a water rinse to clear them away.
How much is enough?
If you’re an endurance athlete or you’re training really hard, sports drinks may help you stay fueled up. You don’t want to gulp them down like water, however, because they can upset your digestive system if you chug too much of them at once.
How much should you drink? That depends on many factors, including your weight, whether you’re exercising in a hot area that increases your sweat, how much you perspire and how much sodium you lose, how intensely you work out, and how long your activity lasts. As a basic rule, plan on eight ounces of a sports drink every half hour your workout lasts past 60 minutes.
Bottom line: For short workouts and less-intense exercise, plain old water will do just fine to keep you hydrated, and you probably won’t burn off enough electrolytes or carbs to need a sports drink. If you want something more flavorful than water, take a look at natural alternatives such as coconut water, which offers electrolytes and good taste with only about 50 calories a serving.