The Hydration Continuum: Beverage Choices for Active People

Sports Drinks

Sports drinks are ideal for active people who want to replace what they lose in sweat and supply their muscles with fuel during a workout, training or race.

When you sweat, you probably know you lose more than just water -- you also lose electrolytes, particularly sodium, the most critical electrolyte lost and a key component of the hydration process. When exercising intensely for longer than approximately 45 minutes, it's important to consider replacing what you lose in sweat to maintain proper rehydration.

However, a sports drink containing too little sodium will not promote optimal rehydration. When selecting a sports drink for intense exercise, look for at least 70 mg of sodium per eight-ounce serving, which is what the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) suggests to help stimulate thirst, increase voluntary fluid intake, maintain fluid balance and ensure sufficient hydration.(6)

Besides sodium, a properly-formulated sports drink should also include the right amount of carbohydrates (the primary and most important energy source for the body during exercise) to fuel working muscles, fight fatigue and provide sweetness.(7,8)

Sports drinks with a carbohydrate level of about six percent (approximately 14-15 g of carbohydrates per eight oz. serving) have been demonstrated by research to promote rapid fluid absorption and supply enough energy to allow active individuals to maintain their physical performance.(9,10)

Keep in mind that if a sports drink contains too much carbohydrate (above 18 grams of carbohydrates per eight oz.), it will hinder fluid absorption. If the drink is too dilute (not enough carbohydrates) then you'll get the fluid you need, but without the appropriate amount of energy needed to fuel working muscles.

Sports drinks branded "low-calorie" or "low-carb" may make it difficult to get the recommended amount of carbohydrate energy (30-60 grams/hour) that athletes need to perform at their peak during intense exercise and may not always contain the right amount of sodium and other electrolytes. That's why it's important to look at the Nutrition Facts label to see what's included -- or what should be included -- to help you with performance.(11)

Advancing along the hydration continuum, rehydration becomes an even greater task for those training for and/or participating in endurance activities, such as a marathon or triathlon. Fluid and electrolyte losses -- specifically sodium -- become substantial over an extended period of intense activity. For example, an endurance athlete can lose almost three times the amount of daily recommended sodium intake during a marathon or long-distance triathlon.(12) 

Specialized Sports Drink

For these athletes, a specialized sports drink with ample sodium would be ideal to help replace their larger sodium losses. Gatorade Endurance Formula is a good choice, as it contains nearly twice the amount of sodium, 200 mg. per eight ounces, compared to Gatorade Thirst Quencher. This is meant to match what an endurance athlete loses in sweat, improving overall hydration and helping sustain performance. In fact, many endurance races now serve specialized sports drinks on-course during a race.

Finally, while plain water, fitness waters, sports drinks and specialized sports drinks can be good options based on your hydration needs, another group of beverages, energy drinks, sometimes get grouped incorrectly into the hydration category.

Energy Drinks

Energy drinks, such as Red Bull or ROCKSTAR, are not primarily designed as hydration beverages or to help with fluid intake/replacement. The amount you would need to consume for proper hydration could become counterproductive due to the overabundance of caffeine consumed.

Though views on caffeine vary in terms of exercise, research has shown that ample amounts of caffeine (e.g., > 200 mg) consumed before an endurance activity (such as a marathon or triathlon) can enhance performance in some athletes. However, not everybody responds favorable to caffeine, and research has shown that there is not one set amount to help (or potentially harm) performance.(13)

Remember, when selecting a hydration beverage, it's important to check out the Nutrition Facts label to be sure you're getting what you want out of that beverage to help you with hydration and performance needs.

So, cheers to the best hydration beverages--keep your eye on the right ingredients and drink up to perform at your best.


    1. Fallowfield, JL et al. J Sports Sci 14:497-502, 1996.
    2. Perspectives in Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, Vol 3, 1990, p. 15.
    3. Stover, B. et al. Int. J. Sports Med. 27:330-335, 2006
    4. Passe, D., Sports Drinks ? Basic Science & Practical aspects, Maughan, R.S. & Murray, R. (Eds.) New York: CRC Press, 2001 Chapter 3
    5. Passe D. Sports Drinks - Basic Science & Practical Aspects, New York : CRC Press, 2001
    6. Casa et al. Journal of Athletic Training, 35(2):212-224, 2000.
    7. Below, P.R. et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 27:200-210, 1995.
    8. Utter A. et al. Int J Sports Nutr, 7:274-285, 1997.
    9. Shi, X. et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 27:1607-1615, 1995.
    10. Below, P.R. et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 27:200-210, 1995.
    11. Jeukendrup AE. Carbohydrate intake during exercise and performance. Nutr 20:669-677, 2004.
    12. The USDA Dietary Guidelines tolerable upper intake level (UL) for sodium is 2,300 mg per day for adults, 19-50 years old.
    13. Doherty, M. and Smith, PM. Int J Sports Nutr Exerc Metab. 14:626-646, 2004.

Heidi Skolnik, MS, CDN, FACSM is the Sports Nutrition Consultant to the New York Giants football team and the School of American Ballet, as well as a nutritionist at The Women's Sports Medicine Center at Hospital of Special Surgery. Heidi is a contributing editor to Men's Health magazine where her column The Weight Loss Coach can be read monthly. Heidi is a Fellow with the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and is also ACSM certified as a Health Fitness Instructor. An expert resource for national media, Heidi is often referenced in newspapers and national magazines such as Men's Health, Self, Glamour, G.Q. and Real Simple. She appears frequently on TV on various morning shows and talk shows discussing her areas of expertise. Ms. Skolnik is the president of Nutrition Conditioning, Inc. a nutrition consulting practice based in New Jersey, serving the greater Metropolitan area.

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