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by Steph Saullo RDN

June 14, 2019

The lowdown on who, what, when, and how to use sports drinks

Staying hydrated during a workout, swim meet, or open water race is essential to performing your best, but do you need a sports drink or water?

Here are a few things to consider when deciding whether you need a sports drink—which provides energy in the form of carbohydrates and replaces electrolytes lost in sweat—or just plain water the next time you’re getting into the water.

Sweating the Small Stuff

For extended (longer than one hour) or strenuous workouts, you should seriously consider consuming a sports drink, including premade ones such as Gatorade or ones you can easily mix such as INFINIT Nutrition’s U.S. Masters Swimming blends designed specifically for swimmers.

The average athlete can lose 1 to 3 liters of sweat an hour, a figure that depends on variables such as the temperature and elevation the exercise is performed, how fit the athlete is, the intensity of the workout, and how long the activity is. When you sweat, you lose fluid and electrolytes. Sports drinks help you hydrate better than water alone because they contain important electrolytes such as calcium, chloride, magnesium, potassium, and sodium. These electrolytes can help maintain fluid balance, prevent cramping, regulate muscle contraction and relaxation, and regulate heart rhythm and blood pressure.

Another thing to consider is how salty of a sweater you are. If you tend to lose sodium at a high rate, a sports drink can help replace those losses.

Here’s how to determine if you’re a salty sweater.

  • Does your sweat taste salty?
  • Does sweat sting your eyes or burn in any open cuts?
  • Do you have white lines on your face, skin, or clothes after a training session?

If you said “yes” to any of those questions, you’re probably a salty sweater.

When to Drink

Swimmers can consume sports drinks before, during, or after their activity.

If you consume a sports drink before exercising, you’ll top off your muscle’s glycogen stores. You can also try salted fruit or vegetables such as apples or tomatoes.

You should drink according to thirst or on a schedule, if necessary, during a workout or event. Consider starting with a 6 percent carbohydrate solution (approximately 14 grams of carbs per 8 fluid ounces) with 150 to 180 milligrams of sodium and 60 to 75 milligrams of potassium. Most major commercial sports drinks provide this.

To determine the carbohydrate concentration of a drink, divide the grams of carbs in one serving by the milliliters of fluid in one serving and multiply by 100. Using the example above: (14 grams carbohydrate/240 milliliters) x 100 = 5.83, or 6 percent.

After exercising, you’ll want to replace fluid losses and refill your glycogen stores. Sports drinks after exercise should be combined with foods or other fluids that provide adequate carbs, protein, and other nutrients. Beverages or foods with higher amounts of sodium might be helpful when aggressive rehydrating strategies are needed. Your urine should be relatively clear within two or three hours of exercising.

What’s Out There?

There are loads of sports drinks available. Although many sports drinks are similar in their nutrient content, they have their differences. Evaluate labels for nutrients and ingredients.

You might try making your own with a combination of sugar, salt, juice (orange, lemon, pineapple, etc.), and water. The U.S. Olympic Committee and many other organizations have examples listed on their websites. Some will taste better than others but don’t set your expectations too high. It’s doubtful that any will taste like the commercial drinks.

Often, you’ll see coconut water listed as an alternative to sports drinks. Although coconut water is high in potassium, it contains less sodium than most sports drinks. Athletes lose more sodium than potassium, and coconut water isn’t likely to meet the needs of an athlete who’s a salty sweater.

Other fruit juices will provide more carbs but will have a lower number of electrolytes than traditional sports drinks.

Salt or electrolyte packets or tablets that can be added to water may be used in place of a sports drink. If you need to replace carbs, then salt or electrolyte tablets will not be a good option.

Gels, chews, or bars can help to replenish carbs, but do not generally supply as much sodium as sports drinks and electrolyte mixes.

Energy drinks are not an alternative to sports drinks. While most contain sugar (carbs) that can help provide energy, the amount is usually in much higher concentrations than traditional sports drinks and may not be well tolerated. They do contain caffeine that may also be beneficial, but rarely contain the electrolytes needed. INFINIT Nutrition is one brand that offers caffeine along with electrolytes needed by swimmers.

For low intensity or exercise that is short in duration, plain water may be appropriate.

To maintain a balance, athletes should be drinking fluid and eating a wide variety of foods that will provide electrolytes throughout the day. Consider salted nuts, pretzels, crackers, and canned soup for sodium; bananas, citrus fruits, and potatoes for potassium; almonds, peanut butter, pumpkin seeds, beans, and spinach for magnesium; and milk, yogurt, almonds, and broccoli for calcium. If you’re a salty sweater, you should add more salt to your foods and beverages throughout the day, drink tomato or vegetable juice, consume packaged soups, or add a pickle or two to your meals or snacks during training.

To Drink or Not to Drink (a Sports Drink)?

Whether you need a sports drink will depend on the length and intensity of your training and whether you happen to be a salty sweater. If you need an easy way to replenish carbs, sports drinks are a great choice.

In general, when training or doing an event longer than 60 minutes, it’s advantageous to consume a sports drink. Athletes should evaluate their tolerance, tastes, nutrients, ingredients, and budget to suit individual needs and preferences. As an athlete, you should always practice with a sports drink of your choosing before an event to ensure you tolerate it without ill effects.


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