Sports drinks vs water: When is it best to drink either? The answer isn’t as simple as people think it is. Your choice of hydration depends on whether your primary goal is rehydration, keeping your body cool and maintaining fluid balance, or replenishment of energy, restocking sugar and electrolyte stores. As a general rule, the higher the amount of carbohydrates in your beverage, the slower the absorption rate is. Consequently, plain water passes through the body too quickly without providing the needed sugar to boost the insulin response and start the recovery phase. The type of workout you are performing (pre, during or post) along with the intensity of your workout will determine the needs of water or a sports drink.
Most sports drinks are in the middle of the spectrum regarding absorption rate. Water being the most readily absorbed and items like fruit juice have the greatest amount of sugar concentration and being the least absorbable. Most sports drinks contain a higher amount of sugar than that of our body fluids and are not readily absorbed into the blood stream which is not optimal for hydration. Before and during intense training, your primary goal should be rehydration making water, heavily diluted sports drinks and water with electrolyte tablets your best choice. Intense training is defined as training over 60 minutes or less than 60 minutes at an intense pace. Electrolytes, especially sodium, and potassium, reduce urine output, speeds the rate at which fluids leave the stomach, and promotes absorption from the small intestine which ultimately encouraging fluid retention.
Studies show that by drinking high sugar sports drinks or eating high glycemic foods or energy bars before or during workouts can lead to the athlete becoming fatigued more quickly.
When you are finished with your workout, water, and heavily diluted sports drinks are not the best choice for recovery. These choices do not contain the needed amount of sugars and electrolytes in order to bring your body back into balance. Consuming large amounts of water and heavily diluted sports drinks are quickly absorbed into the blood stream, basically making your body oversaturated with water. As a result, the fast absorption leads to an improper balance of electrolytes and more bathroom trips, which increases fluid loss and desire to drink. Your best post workout choice is a drink that contains some protein, sugars, and electrolytes. Therefore, drinking a sports drink after you exercise will help kick start the recovery process.
Bill Cerosky, OTR/L, CHT is with OrthoCarolina Huntersville Physical Therapy. Bill received his Bachelors of Science in Occupational Therapy at Utica College of Syracuse University in 1997and completed his clinicals with Charlotte Orthopedic Specialists. He is now a hand therapist specializing in the treatment of outpatient upper extremity injuries of the hand, elbow, and shoulder. In 2002, he received his CHT (Certification of Hand Therapy) certification.