Curator of Fitness & Fun on the Seacoast

The Great Fitness Debate: How Best to Hydrate – Water vs. Sports Drinks

There seem to be so many varying opinions these days on how best to stay hydrated for fitness, workouts, races, and even endurance events like marathons and triathlons. What’s better? Should athletes stick with plain ol’ H2O or do we need the fancy sports drinks with the extra electrolytes and carbohydrates? This is the great fitness hydration debate that leaves me dazed and confused.

photo of water and sports drinks

photo courtesy of caltech dining

I have read articles saying you should stay away from sports drinks because of all the added sugar in them, even though they add to your electrolyte stores. I have heard from exercise and fitness professionals and athletic trainers that you should stick with water alone and plan to get enough salt in your diet. No need for the sugary sports drinks they say. Other hard-core fitness friends of mine on the Seacoast tell me to add electrolyte powder to my water for long runs, bike or hard swim or gym workouts to “balance out my levels” and prevent cramping. All sound good to me, but what’s the best strategy for the body? Is anyone in agreement on this fitness debate on hydration?

Well, thankfully, Gabriella Boston of The Washington Post seems to finally have gotten to the bottom of this fitness debate in her recent Wellness section article “Hydration: Water vs. sports drink”Apparently, according to the health and wellness experts she talked to, it all depends on how long you exercise:

“It depends on the duration and intensity of the physical activity and on how much you sweat,” says Suzanne Girard Eberle, sports dietitian photo of Endurance Sports Nutrition bookand author of Endurance Sports Nutrition. The basic guideline for most people is that if you are doing continuous exercise for 60 minutes or less, then water is fine,” Girard Eberle says. “But beyond 60 minutes and if the intensity is high, you should consider a sports drink.”

Apparently, according to researchers and dietitians, during endurance workouts or long periods of exercise, sports drinks have been found to help the body achieve optimal performance by adding needed carbs and electrolytes. However, one of the drawbacks of sports drinks and one of my main concerns about downing too many is all the added carbs and calories they add to your diet. In my experience, I have definitely benefitted from the extra electrolytes and carbs during races and sprint triathlons, but I also have over-fueled on sports drinks (and all the extra sugar) during training and felt full and bloated during my training and even during races. Maybe it had to do with my workout duration though?

In Boston’s article, according to Mary Perry, a sports nutritionist and owner of Dynamic Nutrition in Alexandria, VA, we should not:

“…worry about the carbohydrates or calories of a sports drink if you exceed the 60 minutes in a workout. These sports drinks are engineered to have the perfect levels of carbs and electrolytes, and they are relatively low in terms of calories.”

Makes sense to me. So, we finally have some answers to the how best to hydrate debate. For exercise or fitness workouts less than 60 minutes, we do not need to hydrate by guzzling down sports drinks. And for exercise over an hour or for endurance sports, sports drinks can provide an added benefit for athletes by boosting our carbohydrate levels and electrolytes, especially when exercising in hot and humid conditions. Got it! I can see it all more clearly now! (Yet I still cannot figure out why my calves cramped up on me during a 6-mile easy run out to the Great Island, Newcastle today – I was well hydrated and ran with a water bottle with some electrolyte powder in it).

Alas my Seacoast fitness friends, might the hydration and nutrition answers lie in the briny ocean waters off of nautical Newcastle? …. Well, as it turns out, YES it’s in there – all photo of salt on a tableathletes and especially endurance athletes need to remember to pass the SALT at mealtime. According to Cedric Bryant, a physiologist and chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise “sodium is by far the most important while exercising.” So if you do not get enough salt in your diet and plan to exercise for long periods and/or participate in endurance events, it’s a good idea to add some extra salt your diet, or even to your water bottle. Without enough salt during long workouts, your muscles can be prone to cramping up. Yes sir-ee Cedric. My calf cramping conundrum is solved.

Actually, it’s all coming back to me now that I am properly hydrated. As I recall, I had experienced a similar leg muscle cramping problem last summer while training for a sprint triathlon. So, I tried adding extra salt to my diet (I just don’t use salt at all) and the leg/calf cramps went away and my workouts improved immediately, and my workout recovery time sped up too. Salt ahoy!

I guess salt is the “magic mineral” then on those long runs, for endurance training or hard workouts. So yes please pass (me) the salt,… and the water, and an occasional sports drink too. As it turns out, they are all the right stuff for proper fitness hydration. Drink up, pass the salt and move on out. Cheers to fitness!

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Categorised in: Hydration, New Blog Posts, Sports/Fitness Health & Nutrition

1 Response »

  1. The great hydration debate continues… Just today Rochelle Connery penned an article on Exercise.com & Active.com “The Truth About Sports Drinks After Exercise” (http://www.active.com/nutrition/Articles/The-Truth-About-Sports-Drinks-After-Exercise.htm).

    Now the debate is over whether to re-hydrate AFTER workouts with water or sports drinks. Water is the way to go here, I agree with the experts, although I also agree that most athletes and fitness enthusiasts prefer not to guzzle large amounts of water after a workout or run. It sounds to me that Rochelle has it in for sports drinks though. What about all the good carbs and electrolytes?

    My personal favorite to re-hydrate after a long workout or tough run or race is 1-2 chocolate milks (I prefer Hatchland), followed by water, then food. Truth be told, according to recent research studies, chocolate milk is supposedly the perfect re-hydration beverage for the body after strenuous workouts, competition or runs. There are many college sports (and pro) teams that have chocolate milk in their locker rooms for post-game and post-practice re-hydration, supplied by the Athletic Trainers.

    Maybe we should not be talking sports drinks at all. They don’t really cut the mustard vs. H2O. How about coconut water and chocolate milk versus water post-workouts? (Stay tuned for my “Chocolate Milk Does A Body Good” blog post – coming soon!).

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