As you approach the first water stop along the racecourse, you see sports drink in some of the cups and water in others. Which should you reach for? That depends. Running time and distance, level of intensity, individual fitness, environmental conditions and even personal preference all factor in to what you should drink—and when you should drink it.
Having to decide between the array of drinks that line your grocery store's beverage aisle is even more daunting. Sure, just about all of those beverages—even the ones that are caffeinated or high in sugar—count toward your fluid needs. But some options are simply better than others, especially when you're striving for peak performance and optimal hydration. "Runners need to make informed beverage choices that fit their individual needs," says Dallas Parsons, RD, a sports nutritionist in Toronto.
Taste is certainly key, since research has proven that we're likely to stay better hydrated if we enjoy what we're drinking. But runners also need to read labels closely to find out the intended use of each product, says Chris Carmichael, coach to Lance Armstrong, founder and CEO of Carmichael Training Systems, Inc., and author of Food for Fitness: Eat Right to Train Right. "A runner out on a 30-minute jog won't be hurt by using one of the new endurance sports drinks," says Carmichael, "but he'd really be just fine with plain water, since endurance drinks become more important as workouts get longer."
Our summer drinking guide can help you navigate these waters (and drinks and juices). Here we define the most popular beverage categories and offer expert recommendations on how these drinks are best used. Whatever you choose, drink it cold and in frequent small amounts. This proven strategy ensures your fluids will be absorbed much more quickly—leaving you properly fueled and well hydrated.
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.
Drink It: On runs under 30 minutes. "The person out for a three-mile jog typically has enough stored energy to meet the demands of the workout and can simply rely on water for hydration," says Carmichael. Drinking water is also a great way to stay hydrated throughout the rest of the day.
Pass It By: On runs over 30 minutes, since you need to replace spent carbs and electrolytes. And those who find the taste of water boring may want to experiment with flavored drinks to ensure that they drink enough to meet their hydration needs.
Get some carbs: Sports Drinks
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.
Drink It: On runs over 30 minutes. Sports drinks are ideal before, during, and after such workouts. Runners bored by the taste of water may also want to experiment with sports drinks during shorter runs.
Pass It By: On runs under 30 minutes. During such short workouts, runners might not want the extra calories and are well served by water. People with sensitive stomachs may need to experiment with different brands and flavors during training.