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Sports drinks vs water - what's better?

by CBHS | Jul 24, 2018
Girl drinking water
The sports drinks vs water debate has been going on for years, with many arguments for both sides. There’s a lot to consider when deciding what to drink when exercising, the most important thing being your hydration level. The human body loses water through sweat when exercising and this water must be replaced to maintain your body’s health. 

Before examining the pros and cons of sports drinks, we first need to understand the importance of fluid replacement. 

Fluid replacement

Water leaves our bodies through our skin and breath all the time, amounting to about 700ml each day. We lose another 100ml through faeces, about 1.5 litres as urine and 200ml more in normal perspiration. As exercise causes a rise in body temperature, the body loses even more water. Replacing this fluid is essential so your body can operate at optimum levels.

During exercise, our bodies keep cool by evaporating fluid from our skin. A good workout could result in a 5% loss in water. An exerciser might feel cramps, fatigue and dizziness as part of this dehydration, as well as expose themselves to more dangerous problems such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion. 

When debating the different benefits of sports drinks and water, no one will argue that water is a poor choice. Clean water can quickly hydrate the body before, during and after exercise, and is easily absorbed by the body. 

That being said, salt does stimulate water absorption and helps you retain water during and after exercise. So by adding sodium to your drink (as they do in sports drinks), you could enhance your water uptake. Replacing the salt lost in sweat helps to maintain blood volume and prevents the dilution of body fluids through urine. 

As well as sodium, sports drinks also contain electrolytes and carbohydrates. Read on to see how that might benefit your workout.  

Electrolytes

Electrolytes are minerals (like calcium, magnesium, potassium, chloride, sodium and a number of others) that have an electrical charge. They affect some bodily functions, so they’re essential to athletic performance. 

If you have sweated profusely, sodium chloride can help minimise urine output and prompt quicker electrolyte balance with the right fluid intake. If you haven't sweated all that much, sodium chloride is unnecessary.

When working out for short durations, it’s not necessary to replace electrolytes, but it is beneficial for athletes and marathon participants exercising for more than an hour at a time.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates give the body energy after it loses calories, so replenishing them can be really useful for someone who has just burnt a mammoth amount of calories. But like electrolytes, they’re not really necessary for your average workout. 

Sports drinks are carefully formulated to provide athletes with a sodium, water and carbohydrate concentrate to replenish the body’s natural levels, making them an effective form of rehydration. They’re also specifically designed with a carbohydrate solution containing both fructose and glucose, which helps get sugar into muscle cells for use during exercise. The combination of fructose and glucose allows for quicker absorption than glucose alone would. 

The downsides of sports drinks

According to one report, one sports drink bottle can contain as much sugar as a can of Coke and it can take an entire hour of high-intensity exercise to burn off the kilojoules. Another report in the British Medical Journal suggests that poorly designed tests and small sample sizes undertaken by sports drinks companies in the past 40 years of research “did not add up to much”. 

Then there’s the unusual responses given by sports drink giants Gatorade and Powerade, following the Australian Dental Association’s suggestion that sports drinks pose a high risk of dental erosion. Gatorade's response was, “Consumers should use a squeeze bottle to ensure the drink doesn't touch their teeth”, while Powerade recommended “minimising contact time by swallowing immediately and rinsing your mouth with water regularly”.

So what does this all mean for the debate?

Essentially, unless you’re a high performance athlete burning lots of calories and sweating profusely, leave the sports drink at home. The sugar in sports drinks and energy drinks are empty calories and the carbohydrates will offer only short bursts of energy without any good long-term effects.

With this in mind, water is the answer. Aim to drink:

  • ½ a litre of water 2-3 hours before working out;
  • 300ml of water 30 minutes before working out;
  • 300ml of water for every 15 minutes of exercise;
  • Another ½ a litre of water no more than 30 minutes after exercise.

Still not sure how much water you should be aiming for? Weigh yourself right after your warm up before your actual workout and then again when you’ve finished. If your overall change in weight is more than two per cent of your body’s starting weight, you need to drink more water!

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All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified medical practitioner. CBHS Corporate Health endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS Corporate Health Cover policies.