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Water vs. Gatorade: Which is better to drink when you exercise?

You always need water, but when do you need a sports drink?

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Brightly colored sports drinks have their benefits, but they aren't always necessary.

Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

Gatorade and Powerade have become synonymous with hydration. Their familiar logos are plastered all over stadiums, sports uniforms and sporting good stores, and both brands sponsor a wealth of famous athletes and fitness influencers. Thanks to all that exposure and their commercial availability, the brightly colored drinks from these two powerhouse brands are often regarded as magic potions thought to speed up rehydration after an intense workout and improve your overall fitness and health.

While many people and experts view sports drinks as a healthy addition for anyone who exercises, just as many will tell you to stick to water.

The main thing to keep in mind here is that you always need water, but you only sometimes need a sports drink. Your body is made up of roughly 50 to 60% water as an adult. You constantly lose water through waste (urine, sweat and feces), as well as through respiration (breathing) and evaporation. 

You need to replenish all that water loss by drinking water throughout the day, lest you suffer the consequences of dehydration. You only need a sports drink, though, when you've lost substantial minerals through sweat. 

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What is in sports drinks?

Sports drinks are essentially fortified and flavored water. The main ingredients (other than water) in most sports drinks are electrolytes and carbohydrates, though some beverages include additional ingredients. Here's a look at some common sports drink ingredients and what their purpose is: 

  • Electrolytes: Sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, phosphate and bicarbonate are all electrolytes found in your body. Sports drinks contain these to replenish the electrolytes you lose through sweat, but not all sports drinks contain all electrolytes. 
  • Other vitamins and minerals: Some companies add other nutrients, such as B vitamins, to their products as a way to stand out in a saturated market and offer potential secondary benefits.
  • Sugar: Sports drinks include sugar to fulfill your body's immediate energy needs during and after exercise. 
  • Amino acids: The building blocks of protein, amino acids may help your muscles recover and rebuild more quickly after strenuous exercise.
  • Caffeine: Some sports drinks include caffeine to give you more energy to power through workouts. Caffeine is known to be a performance-enhancer when taken before and during exercise.
Young woman dressed in workout clothes standing a park, drinking from a plastic water bottle

Drinking water instead of a sports drink is often the better choice when exercising.

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Are sports drinks good for you?

Whether sports drinks are good for you depends heavily on two factors: The exact beverage you're consuming and your individual dietary needs. It's not recommended for the general population to consume sugar-sweetened beverages. In fact, sugary drinks are cited as a leading source of sugar, which contributes heavily to the high obesity rate in the US.

Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, including sports drinks, can lead to excess calorie intake and weight gain over time. To skirt that issue, many companies have developed low- or zero-calorie versions of their sports drinks, using artificial sweeteners to provide the taste without the calories. 

Sports drinks also contain other ingredients that some consumers worry about, such as dyes and food additives. Powerade Fruit Punch, for example, contains "glycerol ester of rosin." Apparently that is a derivative of wood resin used to adjust the weight of beverages. While the FDA has approved this ingredient as a safe food additive, some people may wish to avoid ingredients like this.

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The ingredients in sports drinks are all "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA.

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The bottom line: Water remains the most logical way to hydrate if you aren't active, but there is a place for both regular and low-calorie sports drinks. One review of studies sums it up quite nicely: "Generally, drinking plain water is better than drinking nothing, but drinking a properly formulated carbohydrate-electrolyte 'sports' drink can allow for even better exercise performance."

Are regular or zero-calorie sports drinks better?

Again, there are factors you need to consider here. Regular sports drinks are high in sugar, but low- and zero-calorie sports drinks are high in alternative or artificial sweeteners -- there are pros and cons to both. 

You might want a regular sports drink if: 

  • You're an athlete performing high volumes of intense training
  • You are trying to gain muscle and are looking for avenues to consume more calories
  • You exercise in a very hot environment
  • Sugar alternatives upset your stomach

Typical sports drinks contain more sugar than most people need in one sitting -- or even in one day. A 20-ounce Gatorade Thirst Quencher, for instance, contains a whopping 34 grams of sugar. That's only 5 grams less than a 12-ounce Coca-Cola, for reference. 

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The original versions of sports drinks are too high in sugar for most people, the exception being athletes and people who are intentionally trying to gain weight. 

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The Dietary Guidelines for Americans stipulate that adults should limit added sugar to less than 10% of their daily caloric intake; on a 2,000-calorie diet, that's less than 50 grams, so one Gatorade puts you within a granola bar of exceeding that.  

Again, consuming sugary beverages isn't generally recommended for anyone, but those who are less active can be particularly susceptible to the effects of excess sugar. 

You might want a low- or zero-calorie sports drink if: 

  • You want the electrolytes but not the sugar
  • You're trying to lose weight
  • You want a sports drink but don't exercise for more than 60 minutes, or don't perform intense workouts

The research on alternative sweeteners is inconclusive so far, but ongoing. Low- and no-calorie sweeteners can help with weight-loss efforts, but the potential long-term consequences may not be worth it. Also, some research paradoxically shows that artificial sweeteners can actually sabotage weight loss efforts in the long-term

Some artificial sweeteners are also known to contribute to digestive issues, such as bloat and diarrhea, though not in all people. If you experience digestive distress with sugar alcohols (such as erythritol, maltitol or xylitol) or sugar alternatives (such as aspartame, sucralose or saccharin), low- and zero-calorie sports drinks might exacerbate your symptoms. 

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Look for the "zero" versions of sports drinks if you're trying to cut calories, sugar and sodium.

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When should you drink sports beverages?

Sometimes, sports drinks can offer benefits in excess of pure fluid replacement. For example, a sports drink can help when: 

  • You are exercising in high heat and sweating a great deal (especially if you notice salt on your skin)
  • You're performing or have just finished an endurance event, such as a marathon
  • You need quick fuel (carbs) during a long workout
  • You need simple carbs immediately after a workout or endurance event, especially to keep from feeling wobbly or dizzy

Another situation that may require sports drinks (but more likely an IV of electrolytes) is water intoxication. Water intoxication occurs when you lose too many electrolytes and replenish fluids with water alone. This can dilute your blood sodium levels and cause too much fluid to enter your cells, causing them to swell. While very rare, water intoxication can be serious and even fatal.

There are also other, nonphysiological reasons why sports drinks can be beneficial. For many people, flavored sports drinks are more palatable than plain water or other beverages, and can help them stay sufficiently hydrated. If a Gatorade a day helps you get the amount of fluid you need, then by all means, don't deny yourself hydration. 

You may want to drink low- or zero-calorie versions of sports drinks if you don't exercise regularly, however, to avoid unnecessary added sugar and sodium. If the artificial sweeteners in low- and zero-calorie beverages mess with your digestion, consider switching to fruit-infused water instead. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.