Water or Sports Drinks—Which is the Best Choice for You?

People drinking water

Verywell / Zackary Angeline

After an intense workout, you lose water through sweat, but that's not all that's lost. You may also be depleted of carbohydrates and electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. Water can't replace those nutrients, which is why some people rely on sports drinks instead.

Products such as Gatorade, Powerade, Nuun, and Biosteel are formulated to replace the electrolytes that are lost during exercise. But how do you know if you should rely on plain water, or if you need to replace carbohydrates and electrolytes, too? Here's what you need to know about water and sports drinks including which one is the best choice for you.

What You Need to Know About Dehydration

The human body is made up of about 60% water, which helps regulate body temperature, flush body waste, and deliver oxygen all over the body. Water also is vital to human health and is the major component of most body parts. That's why it's important to stay hydrated daily, whether you exercise or not.

Each day, we take in water though foods and beverages, and we get rid of water though urine, feces, sweat, and breath. It's important to keep a good balance of water coming in and going out.

The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says that an adequate daily fluid intake is about about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids a day for men and 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) for women. This includes all fluids even from the food you eat—not just water.

Not getting enough fluids, particularly water, can lead to dehydration, which occurs when you have lost too much fluid from the body or when you lose more than you take in. This experience may occur due to excessive sweat, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, or simply from not drinking enough fluids.

Extra hydration is necessary when you are ill, especially with a fever, vomiting, or diarrhea. People who exercise or work outdoors in hot weather are also at risk of dehydration, so it's vital to watch for the warning signs.

Signs of Dehydration

Signs and symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Excessive thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Less sweat than usual
  • Not urinating
  • Dark urine
  • Dry skin
  • Confusion

If you experience any of these signs or symptoms, contact a healthcare provider right away.

Your hydration level can also be affected by your age, medications, health conditions, weather, and the altitude you're at. Not having enough water can have negative impacts on both physical and mental performance.

Studies show that even mild dehydration during sports can lead to reduced endurance, increased fatigue, reduced motivation, and increased perceived effort. If you work out regularly, make sure to work out with a hydration bottle handy.

Why Water is a Good Choice

Water is essential for life. Plus, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans say that calorie-free beverages, especially water, should be the primary beverage consumed.

From a nutrition perspective, water is a great choice because it has no calories, sugar, caffeine, or fat. It also helps ensure that the body stays well-hydrated.

Benefits of Water

Water is necessary for many body functions:

  • Helps build and repair every body cell
  • Regulates body temperature
  • Helps flush waste through urination and feces
  • Acts as a shock absorber for the brain and spinal cord
  • Forms saliva, to help with chewing and swallowing
  • Lubricates joints
  • Helps with digestion
  • Keeps mucus membranes moist
  • Helps deliver oxygen throughout the body

When Should You Choose a Sports Drink?

Sports drinks can be a beneficial way for endurance athletes to replenish lost nutrients, but they are not necessary if you exercise for less than 1 hour at a light to moderate level. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that the average person should rehydrate with water, not sports drinks.

Sports drinks are recommended, though, when excessive sweat is lost. Athletes with high sweat rates, very salty sweat, or who take part in sustained exercise for longer than 1 or 2 hours require sodium replenishment, and sports drinks are a good option.

Sports drinks may also be helpful for athletes competing in lengthy events conducted in hot conditions, such as a tennis tournament or a marathon. They also may be helpful for those wearing excessive clothing, such as football players or BMX competitors.

Runners planning to run continuously for at least 1 hour on a hot, humid day may want to consider a sports drink—especially if they sweat a lot and lose a lot of sodium. They should choose an energy drink that contains carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores, and electrolytes to replace those lost in sweat.

The goal of drinking during exercise is to prevent excessive dehydration and changes in electrolyte balance. But we're all different in terms of sweating rates and the loss of electrolytes, so it's best to work with a healthcare provider on a customized hydration program.

When to Choose a Sports Drink

You can consider choosing a sports drink in these conditions:

  • Sustained exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes
  • Exercise in extreme environments, such as high heat and humidity
  • Excessive sweat loss
  • Excessive clothing is required so more sweat is produced

What to Look for in a Sports Drink

Sports drinks are formulated with carbohydrates and electrolytes to help replace nutrients that are lost during exercise. Some sports drinks come ready-made in bottles, and some can be purchased as tablets or powders that you can add to water.

Sports drinks are formulated with the right balance of carbohydrates and fluids so they are emptied quickly from the stomach and are rapidly absorbed by the intestines. Most contain sugar, but some sports drink are made with artificial sweeteners and are carbohydrate-free, so read labels carefully to be sure you know what you are getting.

Sports drinks also contain a mix of electrolyte minerals including sodium and potassium. Sodium drives up the thirst mechanism, which makes you want to drink more. It also increases fluid absorption and retention. Potassium is added because it helps with muscle contraction during exercise.

Ideal Composition of Sports Drinks

For every 8 ounces, a sports drink should contain:

  • Carbohydrates: 12 to 24 grams
  • Sodium: 82 to 163 milligrams
  • Potassium: 18 to 46 milligrams

A Word from Verywell

For everyday exercise like a walk, leisurely bike ride, or swim, hydrating with water is the best option. But if you exercise for 1 hour or more, sweat excessively, or are active in hot climates, a sports drink with carbohydrates, sodium, and potassium may be the right choice for you.

Work with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian to determine your hydration needs—especially if you take medications or have a medical condition that make you prone to dehydration. They can advise you on your individual hydration needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which is better for hydration, water or sports drinks?

    Water is a great choice for hydration. Sports drinks can be used for hydrating after prolonged sports (more than 1 hour), excessive sweating, or when the environment is very hot and humid.

  • Why is water important to overall health?

    Water is essential for survival. The human body is made up of 60% water, which helps build and repair every body cell, regulates body temperature, helps flush waste, lubricates joints, and aids in normal digestion.

  • What factors can affect hydration?

    You hydration status can be affected by illness, such as fever, nausea or vomiting. It can also be affected by losing sweat when you exercise, especially in hot, humid conditions. Hydration is also impacted by age, medications, and how much fluid you take in each day.

  • What are the benefits of drinking water?

    Water is free of calories, sugar, caffeine, and fat, and is a hydrating beverage that is readily available. Water also helps you digest your food and absorb its nutrients. It is even needed to get rid of unused waste.

10 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. United States Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior. The water in you: Water and the human body.

  2. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. Dehydration.

  3. U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Electrolytes and Water.

  4. Orru S et al. Role of functional beverages on sport performance and recovery. Nutrients. 2018;10(10):1470. doi.10.3390/nu10101470

  5. USDA. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Water and healthier drinks.

  7. Nutrition and athletic performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2016;48(3):543-568. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000852

  8. Sports Dietitians Australia. Sports drinks fact sheet.

  9. Human Performance Resources, Consortium for Health and Military Performance. Do you need a sports drink?

  10. National Institute on Aging. Getting enough fluids.

By Cara Rosenbloom, RD
 Cara Rosenbloom RD is a dietitian, journalist, book author, and the founder of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company in Toronto, ON.