What’s the best thing to drink during exercise to stay hydrated, and are coconut water, sports drinks, milk and energy drinks really going to make a difference to your workout?
So, you’ve worked up a sweat and need to hydrate yourself. What do you grab? Gatorade? Coconut water? Milk? There are tons of drinks available on the market that claim to be the best of the best for athletes and active individuals alike, but do they really reign better than plain old water?
What’s the Best Thing to Drink During Exercise?
First, let’s get nerdy for a second. When you exercise, you’re sweating out your body’s water and electrolytes, namely sodium and potassium, making it important to hydrate before, during, and after exercising to prevent dehydration. This is why many sports drinks on the market are advertised as being jam packed with electrolytes and a better hydration source than bottled water. The key ingredients for many sports drinks are water, carbohydrate (usually a sugar), and sodium – all of which are aimed at maintaining optimal performance during exercise and replenishing the body post-exercise by maintaining hydration, energy, and electrolyte levels.
But what does the evidence say about whether these drinks really do hydrate us better than water?
A new competitor, coconut water, has stepped into the exercise hydration game. It is known to be a natural alternative to manufactured sports drinks as it is naturally occurring and rich in potassium in addition to containing sodium, chloride, and some carbs as well, making it an appealing go-to exercise drink. Let’s also not ignore the fact that coconut water has become SUPER trendy thanks to celebrities like Rhianna, Madonna and Courteney Cox. Clinically, it may be used to replenish fluid levels for those experiencing dehydration from diarrhea. In the world of sports nutrition, coconut water is seen as having similar hydration effects as an electrolyte-packed sports drinks. However, a study that compared VitaCoco, a sport drink coconut water, and bottled water, found that there was no statistically significant difference in fluid retention and body mass before and after a dehydrating exercise. So, is coconut water bad? Not necessarily; both plain ol’ tap water and coconut water are capable of providing well-needed hydration to the body but for most of us, the former is just fine.
Caffeinated Energy Drinks
There are some claims that drinking caffeinated energy drinks (Redbull, Monster, etc.) can enhance overall performance due to its sugar content in combination with stimulants, such as taurine, guarana, and caffeine. How so? The caffeine causes an increase in heart rate and induces glycogen sparing, thereby enhancing available energy stores to keep you energized longer, which may be particularly useful for endurance activities. However, higher-quality studies are needed to determine without or not caffeinated energy drinks are all that beneficial to performance and hydration during exercise, especially because caffeine does have its own side effects and impacts on the body. Not to mention, energy drinks are usually super high in sugar and fatigue can occur once the sugar and caffeine leaves the body (aka the dreaded sugar crash).
Milk and Milk-Based Drinks
Milk? Yes, you read that right! Although not as popular, some have suggested drinking milk is the best thing to drink during exercise as the proteins in milk, whey and casein, can help enhance fluid absorption and retention the same way that sports drinks or foods and fluids with carbs and sodium do. This opens up the consideration for milk-based protein shakes and drinks post-exercise, although it is a personal choice as not everyone can tolerate milk. One study did find that soy milk can be equally effective so that’s good news for my lactose-free friends. Having said that, I would say that more studies are needed before conclusive conclusions can be drawn. I also wouldn’t suggest completely replacing all water with milk since you’re looking at adding at least 100 calories per cup.
Alright, here’s the big kahuna: sports drinks. Is this really the best thing to drink during exercise? Whether you’re on team blue Powerade or purple Gatorade (or something organic and natural you found at Whole Foods), sports drinks have long existed in the sports world as a hydrating alternative to plain water due to its carbohydrate and electrolyte content. A few sources have suggested that sports drinks or other fluids with the appropriate ratios of carbohydrates and sodium may be more helpful for prolonged and/or short, high-intensity workouts rather than for low-intensity workouts to maintain hydration during and after exercise. Why? Simply because the sugar in these drinks help provide energy to the working muscles that are needed for long workouts (60+ minutes) and the electrolytes help maintain optimal performance.
But here are a few things to consider. Sports drinks for endurance exercises can improve performance, but if the amount of carbohydrates in the drink is too high, it can restrict the amount of water available for the body. Not to mention, if the source of carbohydrate is mainly fructose, it may cause stomach upset and no one likes to be running to the loo while they’re trying to just run. Even though sugar provides energy to your working muscles, the sugar in sports drinks can add excess calories to your day. If your goal is weight loss, and you’re downing these bad boys like they’re, well, water, and you aren’t partaking in high-intensity activities, you’re probably going to gain weight. Oh and the sodium? It’s definitely helpful for higher levels of activity or in really hot environments as you’re losing more electrolytes through your sweat which can interfere with your ability to push yourself. For most of us doing our lunch-hour workout, there’s really no need to load up on excess sodium as our salt intakes are high enough on a daily basis already.
Bottom line on what’s best to drink for exercise?
You may have seen this coming, but in most cases, water is the best thing to drink during exercise. It’s just as good as any other sports drinks and coconut water for post-exercise hydration for your day-to-day workouts. It’s not to say that one is more superior than the other. At the end of the day, it’s a personal choice if you prefer one over the other, but keep in mind that for low-intensity workouts, hydration with water and a well-balanced diet is just as effective in keeping your fluid and electrolytes in check. Sports drinks and coconut water are recommended for prolonged and/or high-intensity exercises or exercising in hotter climates when you’re sweating like mad, but if these are what you prefer, choose ones that are noncarbonated, noncaffeinated, contain a small amount of sodium, and aren’t sweetened with fructose alone. And think about these as a supplement to the pure unadulterated water, don’t forget about the goodness of a nice cold glass of H2O.
So tell me what do you think is best to drink during exercise for hydration?
Have you noticed a difference in your performance using one drink over another?
What’s your favourite drink (okay not going to lie, I LOVE blue gatorade).
Leave me a comment below with your thoughts!
RD2B Amy Choi
Updated on October 8th, 2020
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian (RD), regulated by the Ontario College of Dietitians. She is a mom, YouTuber, Blogger, award winning cookbook author, media coach specializing in food and nutrition influencers, and a frequent contributor to national publications like Healthline and on national broadcast TV shows.