When we push ourselves physically, we sweat and respire more vigorously, and the moisture we lose through these outlets must be replaced at a rate that keeps place with our activity level. Thirst is a simple indicator that we need moisture, but thirst doesn’t tell us everything about what we’ve lost, and sometimes thirst doesn’t activate at an intensity level that truly reflects our body’s needs. We’ve all had coaches, trainers, and summer camp counselors remind us that “just because you don’t feel thirsty doesn’t mean you’re hydrated”. By the same token, just because you’re drinking doesn’t mean your body is getting the hydration and replenishment it needs. So how much hydration is enough? And should that hydration come in the form of sports drinks, or is plain water enough?
Water or Sports Drinks?
A sedentary lifestyle requires between 6 and 8 glasses of water per day. This goes up as you begin to exercise and your sweat and respiration become more intense.
During moderate exercise lasting one hour or less, your muscles burn primarily fat as fuel. Fat converts to glucose which allows muscles to stay active. After a while, muscles start drawing glucose from other sources, and fat burning gives way to carbohydrate burning. At this point, your body doesn’t just need moisture to stay active, it also needs to replenish lost carbohydrates and electrolytes (mostly potassium and sodium).
So if your workout lasts for less than an hour, water is a free, clean, healthy, and perfectly adequate form of hydration. It’s unprocessed, it’s safe, and it contains no calories.
If your workout exceeds an hour and is especially intense, your performance will benefit from a few extra carbohydrates to replace the ones you’ve lost. So you’ll want to choose a drink with a little bit of extra sugar and salt. Commercial sports drinks are fine, but check the label, since some of these contain high fructose corn syrup, which is not what you need. You can also add a little splash of lemon juice and a pinch of sugar and salt to pure water to gain all the benefits of most sports drinks.