What's the Best Thing to Drink When Exercising?

Exercise, as we all know, is an important part of staying healthy. And I'm sure that most of you know that we need to make sure that we stay hydrated during and after a workout. But do you know what exactly you should be drinking to ensure that you do? Based on what some of my clients report drinking and what I see many people drinking at the gym and during sports' games, I know that the answer, unfortunately, is a resounding no. Don't be one of the many people who reach for the wrong drinks that are unhealthy and undo a lot of the purpose of their workout!

So what should we drink while we exercise to make sure we stay well hydrated?

For the vast majority of people, good old plain water is enough. If exercising at a medium intensity for under 60 minutes (as most of us do in our workouts), drinking plain water is enough to adequately re-hydrate the body. In this case, you don't need to worry about electrolytes and you just don't need any fancy workout-geared drinks. They're a waste of money and the added calories negate part of the benefits of your workout.

There are, however, some instances where you need to consume water and electrolytes, and failure to do so can cause serious damage to your body. These are:

  • Endurance training (i.e. exercising at a medium intensity for over an hour)
  • Exercising at a high-intensity for more than 30 minutes
  • Exercising in hot weather

In these situations, if you drink water but don't replace electrolytes, your body cannot maintain proper fluid balance and you put yourself at high risk for hyponatremia (when your body's sodium levels become dangerously low). Hyponatremia is no joke; the cells in your body swell and stop functioning as they should. If bad enough, it can be life-threatening.

Interestingly (and contrary to what we've been led to believe), far, far more marathon runners end up with complications from hyponatremia than from dehydration because they drink a ton of water but don't balance it out with the necessary electrolytes. So if you're engaging in endurance training like a marathon, exercising at a high-intensity for more than 30 minutes, or exercising in very hot weather, be sure to replace electrolytes!

What should you drink in order to replace both water and electrolytes to make sure that you stay hydrated and avoid hyponatremia?

Contrary to the popular opinion, the answer is NOT conventional sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade. Stay away from them! While these drinks contain both water and electrolytes, they also have excessive amounts of sugar and a bunch of harmful ingredients like artificial food dyes and preservatives. They also have way more calories than people need in their choice of fluid replacement.

Instead, try coconut water. It naturally contains the electrolytes we need - and in the right proportions. It also happens to be a good source of magnesium, B vitamins, and zinc, and it's low in sugar. For particularly strenuous activity (e.g. running a marathon), add a pinch of sea salt or Himalayan salt to make sure that you don't put yourself at risk for hyponatremia.

And as a general rule of thumb, I recommend that you monitor the color of your urine to make sure that you are sufficiently hydrated. Your urine should be a pale yellow to almost clear, and anything darker indicates that you need to be consuming more fluids.

Now tell me: What do you guys usually drink when you exercise? Will you be making any changes after reading this article?


Photo: Bruno Sersocima