I’ve been drinking a flavored sports drink during my gym sessions, which I noticed is really high in sugar. It tastes great, but taking in the extra calories seems counterproductive to what I’m burning off in my workouts. So what’s better during a workout: water, a sports drink, or something like coconut water? —Michael G.
Figuring out how to stay hydrated during workouts is super important, especially during the steamy summer months.
You usually have two needs to consider when choosing what to drink during exercise. The first is hydration, or keeping the body cool and maintaining fluid balance. The second is energy replenishment, which means restocking the body’s glucose and electrolyte stores. Electrolytes—essential minerals like sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphate—are necessary for a balancing fluids inside and outside of our cells, and help muscles and nerves function properly.
OK, so hydration and energy replenishment are the two things your body might need during a workout. Depending on the intensity of your workout, your needs will change. Both the type of exercise and the duration of the workout contribute to the level of intensity—in other words, a 30-minute spin session generally requires a different type of hydration than a 10-mile run.
For moderate exercise
Like: Yoga, Pilates, barre classes, short runs, and most workout classes under 60 minutes
During moderate exercise, like an easy jog or 45-minute spin class, water should do the trick to keep you cool as your core body temperature rises. That extra kick of energy from sugary or carbohydrate-filled drinks won’t be necessary, because your muscles store enough glucose (sugar) to get you through the workout without hitting the wall. Plus, once you’re done, you can refuel with protein and carbohydrates, both of which help with recovery and replenish electrolytes you may have lost through sweat.
Verdict: Unless you’re exercising for longer than 60 minutes, or doing a serious workout and sweating tons, fill up your water bottle with good ol’ H2O.
For high-intensity exercise
Like: Running, bootcamp classes, HIIT workouts, or anything longer than 60 minutes
If you’re doing something more intense (think almost-need-to-puke kind of exercise) or running or hiking for longer than 60 minutes, energy replenishment is a must. As you work, your body uses up sugars stored in the muscles and sweats out electrolytes. You know how sometimes your skin has a white, salty residue after a long day of hiking or sweating? That’s a signal that you need to replenish minerals and salts with a sports drink.
Most of us won’t lose that many electrolytes in an hour-long session, but if you notice salt streaks on your skin after sweat dries—or you know you’re a pretty sweaty person in general—you might want to consider sipping an electrolyte drink toward the end of workouts shorter than 60 minutes.
Verdict: Everyone is different, but for most workouts longer than 60 minutes, it’s ideal to alternate between an electrolyte drink (which helps replenish fuel and minerals, but is not as easy to absorb) and water (which hydrates your body as you lose fluids through sweating).
So how do you pick the right sports drink for you? That’s a little more about personal preference. Beverages made with artificial coloring, chemical sweeteners and flavorings, and a lot of sucrose (aka table sugar) aren’t exactly performance enhancers—and they probably won’t make you “like Mike.” Studies have even shown that drinking high-sugar beverages before a workout can actually cause your energy levels to drop.
Instead, try coconut water—it naturally has less sugar than commercial sports drinks, and it gives you a solid dose of potassium and magnesium. Extracted from the inside of young coconuts, it also offers a hefty dose of energy-boosting B vitamins. But even coconut water might not cut it for really tough workouts and long runs, depending on how hard you’re working and how much you’re sweating. In those cases, I’m a big fan of this healthy take on Gatorade.
It tastes a lot like the OG sports drink, but is made of all natural ingredients; plus, you can customize it however you want. Flavored with lime juice and sweetened with raw honey, it delivers fast fuel to your muscles without the crash. A pinch of pink Himalayan salt adds electrolytes like sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
Take the basic recipe up a notch by blending in a spoonful of chia seeds for extra amino acids and protein. Chia seeds have long been called “runner’s energy” because the indigenous Mexican Tarahumara tribe—who’ve been studied for their ability to sprint marathon-length distances on a daily basis—drink a chia-seed beverage every morning.
DIY Organic “Gatorade”
Yield: 4 servings
Active Time: 1 minute
Total Time: 3 minutes
Add ingredients to a high-speed blender and mix on high until chia seeds are pulverized. Drink during workouts with water, and store the rest in the fridge for up to two days.