Sports drinks or water when exercising?

Sports drinks or water when exercising

With so many sports drinks on the market, it can be hard to work out what to drink when you’re exercising. Some marketing campaigns for sports drinks would have you believe that they can improve your exercise performance even if you’re not an athlete. Sports drinks are specifically formulated to provide the right amount of carbohydrate (sugar), electrolytes and fluid to optimise absorption and fuel high intense activity. Although there are several brands available, there is little difference in their formulation

Understanding fluid replacement

Your body is constantly balancing your level of water and electrolytes. If you need more water, your brain will make you feel thirsty. At the same time, your brain will also signal your kidneys to make less urine so that water and electrolytes (minerals) don’t leave your body. A good test of dehydration is the colour of your urine. If it’s pale and clear, it means you’re well hydrated. The darker it is, the more fluids you need to drink. Some foods, medications or supplements can also change the colour of your urine. An example is beetroot, vitamin C and multi vitamins, even berocca.

As exercise causes a rise in body temperature, the body loses even more water. Replacing this fluid is essential so your body can operate at optimum levels. A loss of as little as 2% of your total body water can start to reduce your performance.

During exercise, our body keeps cool by evaporating fluid from our skin. A good workout could result in a considerable loss of water and therefor dehydration.

Some of the symptoms of dehydration include:

  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • mood changes
  • slow reaction times
  • confusion
  • weakness

Plain water can quickly hydrate the body before, during and after exercise, and is easily absorbed. Research has shown that cooler water increases the amount we drink so if you struggle drinking water, add some ice or invest in an insulated bottle to keep it cool.

How much do you need to drink?

As a general rule, adult men need around 10 cups of fluids each day and adult women need around eight cups. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need nine cups. One cup is equivalent to 250ml.

Why water is best

According to the Healthdirect Australia, tap water is the best way to hydrate. It can quickly hydrate you and get rid of mouth dryness or an acidic taste in the mouth. It also contains no sugar so there’s no risk of damaging your teeth. The fluoride in tap water can actually help to protect your teeth from decay.

If you’re exercising moderately or if you’re exercising for less than an hour, water is always the best option. If you exercise at high intensity for over an hour, a sports drink may be beneficial but for most people sports drinks are unnecessary and overload your body with salt and unnecessary kilojoules.

The problem with sports drinks

Despite all the marketing hype around sports drinks, for the average recreational exerciser or sports person, they really aren’t going to improve performance. For the majority of us, all they do is add to the extra calories we ingest every day and could be leading to unnecessary weight gain. But with most things, they do play a role for some groups of people.  It is best to consult a sports dietitian or GP to discuss your individual needs.

Dental erosion

The Australia Dental Association says that sports drinks are acidic and increase the risk of dental erosion. This means that sports drinks cause the breakdown of enamel on your teeth. The enamel protects your teeth and when it’s worn away, you’re more likely to experience pain and sensitivity. The Australian Dental Association recommends drinking them in moderation or not at all. Choosing water first is the best choice.

Sports drinks generally contain water, electrolytes and carbohydrates. Unless they’re artificially sweetened where the carbohydrate is replaced.


Electrolytes are minerals that affect some body functions and are essential to athletic performance. The main electrolytes in sports drinks are sodium and potassium. If you’ve sweated profusely in a workout, drinking sodium chloride can help to reduce the amount of urine you produce. If you haven’t sweated very much, sodium chloride isn’t necessary. If you’re working out for shorter periods, it’s not necessary to replace electrolytes. If you’re a professional athlete, exercising in the heat or for extended times more than hour, replacing electrolytes could be beneficial.


The carbohydrates found in sports drinks often include sugars like glucose, sucrose and fructose, or a combination. Carbohydrates give the body energy after it loses calories, so replenishing them can be useful for someone who has just burnt a lot of calories. But like electrolytes, they’re not really necessary for your average workout. They also play a role with water absorption and with improving intake of water by offering a taste appeal.

Unless you’re a high-performance athlete burning lots of calories and sweating profusely, it’s best to leave the sports drink at home and choose plain water first. The sugar in sports drinks and energy drinks are empty calories and the carbohydrates will offer only short bursts of energy without any positive long-term effects.


All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.

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