How to Choose the Best Sports Drink

When your body sweats during exercise, you not only lose water; your sweat also includes electrolytes (sodium) that need to be replaced for optimal fluid balance and performance. Years ago, water was the only fluid replacement option for athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike.
Then, in the 1960s, medical researchers at the University of Florida developed the first ''sports beverage'' to help the school's student athletes stay hydrated while also replacing nutrients and energy during a game. It contained water, glucose, sodium, chloride and potassium. The Florida Gators aptly named their drink Gatorade, and the business of refueling with enhanced beverages has never been the same since.
Beyond the original Gatorade, sports drink options abound these days in a variety of flavors and nutrient profiles. But how do you know which (if any) is right for you?
Who Needs a Sports Drink?
As training and performance demands can vary greatly for different people—as can the amount any individual sweats during a given activity--there is no single correct answer as to who only needs water and who needs a sports drink. Other considerations include the demands of the sport, the duration, the climate and environment, clothing and equipment requirements, and one’s fitness level and body composition. 

For most general exercisers, water is the most appropriate choice since the average person isn't losing copious amounts of electrolytes and generally doesn’t need additional fuel (carbohydrates/calories) to complete his or her workout. However, a sports drink can significantly benefit and should be used by the exerciser or athlete who:
  • Has a high sweat rate
  • Exercises extremely hard or for 1 to 1 1/2 hours or more (whether for endurance training or team sports)
  • Exercises in hot and humid conditions
  • Exercises while wearing protective sports equipment such as with hockey or football since the extra equipment increases sweating and energy expenditure.
In these cases, follow these guidelines to find out how much to drink.
  • 2-3 Hours before Exercise: Consume 12-24 oz. of sports drink. (Learn more about what to eat and drink before a workout.)
  • During Exercise: Consume 6-12 oz. of a sports drink every 15-30 minutes. (Learn how much water to drink during workouts.)
  •  Within 30-45 Minutes after Exercise: Consume a lightly salted snack or meal that contains carbohydrates and protein (click here for post-workout snack ideas) or a recovery beverage that contains calories, carbohydrate, protein and sodium.
If the athletic event or workout session is shorter than one hour and of low to moderate intensity, there is no real benefit to using a sports drink other than personal taste preference. If you like the taste, you may find that it is easier to meet your fluid needs with a sports drink than with water alone.
Choosing the Right Sports Drink
When selecting a sports drink, consider the following nutrients. (Note: As some sports drink formulas can cause upset stomach and digestive distress, it is very important to try out a sports drink during training to see how your body responds prior to using the product during a race or competition.)
  • Water should be listed first in the ingredients list, as this is the most important ingredient: Avoid sparkling or carbonated drinks to prevent bloating and discomfort. 
  • Sodium: The drink should contain about 50-150 milligrams of sodium per 8-ounce serving.
  • Potassium: Look for 20-50 milligrams of potassium per 8-ounce serving.
  • Carbohydrates: When participating in endurance events or high-intensity stop-and-go sports; consuming between 30-60 grams of carbohydrates for each hour of activity has been shown to improve performance, prolong exhaustion and delay fatigue. This works out to about 13-19 grams of carbohydrates per 8-ounce serving. (Consuming a drink with more than 20 grams of carbs per 8 ounces slows down digestion and can upset your stomach and your performance.)
A Note on Energy Drinks
Keep in mind that energy drinks are not the same as sports drinks, and should not be used as such. They contain too many carbohydrates (which can cause upset stomach), and the possible excessively high caffeine intake can bring about a diuretic effect and decrease performance. Zero-calorie energy drinks also present the risk of excessive caffeine intake.

What about Sugar?
The source of the carbohydrates in sports drinks is one form of sugar or another. Sugar serves two purposes in sports drinks: It improves the taste of the drink, but more importantly, it also supplies quick-digesting carbohydrates that your working muscles need for prolonged exercise. The carbs in sports drinks are often found in the form of glucose, glucose polymers, sucrose, fructose, galactose and/or maltodextrin.  Some research suggests that sports drinks offering a blend of carbohydrates, rather than a single source may improve the rate at which carbohydrates reach the muscles as fuel, since different types of carbohydrates are absorbed through slightly different bodily processes. 

To avoid excessive sugar consumption, caloric sports drinks should only be consumed by exercisers who need the added benefit of quick-digesting carbohydrates (sugar) during endurance events. Note: Choosing a sugar-free or low-carb ''sports drink'' in order to save on calories, carbs or sugar will not provide extra energy for endurance events, but may be a fine solution for people who only need the hydration and electrolytes.
Energy-Boosting (Endurance) Sports Drinks that Also Hydrate
The following examples of sports drinks meet the nutrition recommendations for hydration, electrolyte replacement and carbohydrates/energy needed to fuel endurance exercise. Nutrients listed are based on a single 8-ounce serving of each drink. (Keep in mind most bottles contain more than one serving.)
Drink Calories Carbs
Sodium Potassium
Gatorade 53 14 g 107 mg 30 mg
Powerade 53 15 g 100 mg 23 mg
Homemade Orange
Sports Drink
55 14 g 146 mg 29 mg
Homemade Grape
Sports Drink
67 17 g 146 mg 33 mg
Hydrating Sports Drinks for Shorter Duration Exercise
Lower-calorie sports drinks contain too few carbohydrates and calories to boost energy or performance during endurance events. However, they do contain water and therefore hydrate the body.
Most fitness waters and vitamin-enhanced flavored waters contain too few carbohydrates to improve performance during endurance events, and/or too little sodium and potassium. These drinks also contain a variety of vitamins such as vitamins C, E, B-6, B-12, niacin, and pantothenic acid. These added nutrients are probably not a danger, but generally don't provide added benefit since they are easily obtained in foods. 
Coconut water is often marketed as a more natural alternative to typical sports drinks.  However, the nutrient content is highly variable. Coconut water contains far less sodium and carbohydrate and significantly greater amounts of potassium than well-researched sports drinks. While coconut water is safe to consume for the healthy adult, further studies are needed to determine if coconut water has any benefits for endurance athletes. Recent reports are saying that coconut water is no better than plain old water when it comes to hydration.
Use the chart below to see how lower-calorie sports drinks, including vitamin waters and coconut water, compare nutritionally. Nutrients listed are based on a single 8-ounce serving of each drink. (Keep in mind most bottles contain more than one serving.)
Drink Calories Carbs Sodium Potassium
Low-Calorie G2 20 5 g 107 mg 30 mg
Powerade Zero 0 0 g 100 mg 23 mg
Vitamin Water 48 13 g 0 0
Propel Workout Water 0 0 77 mg 0
Propel Power Packer (1) 0 0 0-70 mg 0
Dasani Nutriwater 0 0 0 0
Dasani Drops (1 serving) 0 0 0 0
Coconut Water 46 11 g 60-250 mg 400-600 mg
Many different types of athletes can benefit from the use of a sports drink that contains the appropriate amount of carbohydrates, sodium and potassium to help improve hydration and athletic performance. Ultimately, listen to your body, consume sports drinks according to the training guidelines above, and stay hydrated!
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Member Comments

Thanks for the great article! :) Report
Thanks for sharing the multiple ideas and tips very good and informative post
t-sports-drink/ Report
Thanks for the breakdown. I have never found gatorade to taste good. Report
Hi Becky, I'm glad that you included HM versions of Sports Drinks. I make my own, and leave out the sugar.
Great information! Report
Good to see this comparison Report
good info Report
Thanks for sharing =) Report
Thanks for sharing Report
Thanks for sharing. Report
Going to give the homemade grape sports drink a try this summer (Gatorade Fierce Grape is my favorite flavor). Report
Thanks for sharing Report
I prefer coconut water, since it's got all that fancy stuff, but is all natural. It tastes horrible though. Report


About The Author

Becky Hand
Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.