Which is better:  sports drinks or water?  The answer is:  both.  Water is free, contains no excess calories, and is nature's perfect solution for rehydrating after exercise.  Sports drinks contain water, sugar, carbohydrates, electrolytes and protein.  They're advertised as an athlete's best choice,  but are they necessary (and could they actually be harmful)?  It all depends on how long you exercise and whether you'll drink enough water instead. 

How much  fluid do you need?

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends drinking about 17 ounces of fluid two hours before exercise to promote adequate hydration.  During exercise, athletes should drink approximately 16-32 ounces of cool water or fluids per hour. ACSM says if you exercise more than an hour, sports drinks are a good idea because they help the body absorb fluid easily, replace electrolytes (primarily sodium) and boost performance with the addition of carbohydrates and protein. 

Most people don't exercise that long and don't require anything more than water.  ACSM says, "During exercise lasting less than 1 hour, there is little evidence of physiological or physical performance differences between consuming a carbohydrate-electrolyte drink and plain water."

Bottoms up

Not everyone drinks enough plain water though to properly rehydrate. When the water is flavored, like in sports drinks, they'll drink plenty.  The New York Times reported on a Canadian study of children participating in cycling.  Most failed to drink enough plain water during exercise, even when readily available. When offered grape-flavored water, they voluntarily drank 44.5 percent more than when the water was unflavored. And when offered a sports drink that included 6 percent carbohydrates and electrolytes, they eagerly downed 91 percent more than when offered water alone.  The Times quoted Nancy Clark, a registered dietician and sports nutritionist in Boston, to clarify that "Sports drinks are only appropriate in the context of sports, . . . serious sports, Most kids don't work out hard enough to require carbohydrate and electrolyte replenishment."

Can sports drinks be harmful?

Sciencedaily.com reports that prolonged consumption of sports drinks may be linked to severe tooth damage. Sports drinks are also full of calories.  Consuming one bottle of a popular drink may replace all the calories burned in an average workout.  USA Today quoted Barry Popkin, director of the University of North Carolina's Interdisciplinary Obesity Center, "Only a marathon runner or very long duration athlete needs sports drinks. For the non-long-distance runner or biker, they provide calories and no other benefits over water. It is very hard to burn enough calories to offset a 60- to 120-calorie beverage. You need 15 minutes of swimming, 10 minutes of running or 30 minutes of walking for a 165-pound person. Someone who weighs 120 pounds needs 45 minutes of walking or 20 minutes of running."

While most experts agree water is the best choice for the average athlete,  endurance athletes need more.  Some, like Michael Phelps, turn to low-fat milk or soy protein beverages to replace fluids and help repair and rebuild muscles after training.  The USDA reports that a recent study showed that, after exhaustive exercise, athletes who drank low-fat milk, compared to those who drank water or a commercial sports drink, retained substantially more of the fluid consumed during a 2-hour recovery period.

So what's the best choice? For most of us, water.  For athletes who truly go the distance, sports drinks or low-fat milk are appropriate.