The Simplest Choice: Water
With so many thirst-quenching options, plain old water may seem rather pedestrian. But water is less expensive and more readily available than any other beverage. It’s also calorie-free for those watching their weight. While tap water may seem less pure than bottled, it’s often subject to more stringent safety regulations and is generally more mineral-rich. But drink whichever you think tastes better to ensure you drink enough. Just remember that water won’t refuel your carbohydrate (energy) reserves or replace electrolytes lost through sweat.
The carbohydrate-electrolyte-fluid potion that Gatorade launched back in 1965 has since spawned an entire beverage category based on the theory that athletes need more than just water during strenuous aerobic exercise in order to stay properly fueled and well hydrated. Ideally, sports drinks have a six to eight percent carbohydrate concentration (14 to 20 grams of carbs per serving), which allows them to be absorbed by the body up to 30 percent faster than water and provide a steady stream of carbs to restock spent energy stores. They also contain the electrolytes sodium and potassium, minerals that are lost through sweat and important for fluid retention.
Some runners–particularly weight watchers–avoid sports drinks because they contain calories. That’s a mistake, says Suzanne Girard Eberle, a sports dietitian and author of Endurance Sports Nutrition. “When you’re training long and hard, you shouldn’t minimize your caloric intake. Don’t work against your body while you’re asking it to perform.” Besides, research indicates that consuming carbohydrates during exercise may suppress appetite later in the day.
This new breed of sports drinks aims to serve longer-distance runners. Endurance drinks typically offer the same carbohydrate content as regular sports drinks, but they throw in an extra dose of sodium and potassium–the main electrolytes lost through sweat. Most contain approximately twice the sodium as regular sports drinks. “Endurance formulas that deliver both carbohydrate and electrolytes can enhance performance in very long workouts and competitions, while helping to maintain electrolyte levels,” says Carmichael.
Drink It … During workouts or races that last two to three hours or more. Also a good option for endurance athletes who are heavy sweaters and have a history of muscle cramping during long workouts.
Pass It By … On runs lasting less than an hour. These drinks were designed for longer workouts.
Just a Little Extra: Enhanced Waters
Also known as fitness waters, most of these drinks, which typically contain less than 50 calories per eight-ounce serving, list water as the first ingredient, followed by a sweetener–either real or faux. Many are also enhanced with vitamins and minerals and come in a wide variety of flavors. But don’t expect the extra vitamins and minerals to boost your running. “There is no evidence that the small amount of vitamins and minerals added to these drinks will aid performance,” says Eberle. “And there’s no evidence that we need them during exercise.” These waters also won’t properly fuel long workouts because of their low carbohydrate content.
Drink It … On runs under 30 minutes. Also can be used for hydrating throughout the day by those who don’t want a lot of extra calories or when drinking plain water seems too blah.
Pass It By … On runs over 30 minutes. You need the extra carbs in traditional sports drinks to support longer workouts.
What puts the “energy” in energy drinks? Most contain a potent mixture of caffeine and sugar, both proven to enhance performance. But the extremely high amount of sugar in these drinks (between 110 and 160 sugar calories per eight-ounce serving) actually prohibits them from being a smart fluid choice during exercise. That’s because the dense carbohydrate content slows fluid absorption and can give some runners an upset stomach. Other stimulants often found in these drinks, such as guarana, ginseng, taurine, and L-carnitine, may boost performance but can also increase your blood pressure and heart rate and make you feel shaky–particularly if taken on an empty stomach.
Some traditional sports drinks have so-called “energy formulas,” but they’re often not the same as energy drinks like Red Bull, since they usually aren’t as high in sugar or caffeine. (Gatorade’s energy formula, for example, while high in sugar, is caffeine-free. See “What’s in Your Bottle,” page 73.) “Most sports drink energy formulas–even when they have caffeine–still have the right concentration of carbohydrate to meet guidelines for proper hydration,” says Carmichael.
Drink It … If you’re well fed, well hydrated, and looking to boost alertness and energy before or after a run, not during.
Pass It By … If you have a sensitive stomach, a history of heart palpitations, or are watching your weight.
When It’s Over: Recovery Drinks
Research indicates that adding a little protein to the carbs you consume postrun helps speed the restoration of your glycogen (energy) stores and facilitate muscle repair. Consequently, most recovery drinks contain 30 to 60 grams of carbs and seven to 15 grams of protein–roughly a four-to-one ratio. “Recovery drinks can significantly improve any athlete’s ability to have a quality workout tomorrow and the day after that,” says Carmichael.
Drink It … After a race or workout, especially if you have no appetite after running. Recovery drinks can also serve as a prerun meal if you can’t tolerate solids when fueling up. Ultrarunners might want to experiment with these drinks during exercise to help meet their high need for calories.
Pass It By … If you’re logging easy miles and don’t need or want the extra calories.
Both juice and soda can help keep you hydrated, although their relatively dense carbohydrate concentrations (10 to 14 percent) slow fluid absorption in the intestinal tract and can cause stomach distress or nausea in some runners when taken in during exercise. If you’re looking to fulfill some of your fruit quota for the day, check out the label of your favorite fruit drink and make sure it’s made with 100 percent real fruit juices. Soda offers no real nutrition, but those that are caffeinated can serve as an occasional pick-me-up.
Drink It … When hydrating or fueling before or after runs.
Pass It By … When hydrating or fueling during runs or if you don’t need the extra calories.
Nontraditional sips: Oxygenated Waters
Here’s all you need to know: Humans absorb oxygen through the lungs. Just in case, here’s an expert: “Studies have not been able to determine that drinking oxygenated water has a measurable effect on a person’s resting heart rate, blood pressure, or blood-lactate values,” says sports nutritionist Dallas Parsons.
Drink It … If you are a goldfish.
Pass It By … If you are a human.