Water vs. Gatorade: What's the Best Hydration for Colorado Athletes?

If you are hiking the Manitou Incline, or if you’re an athlete hoping to join the Olympic athletes training here in Colorado Springs, the intensity of your exercise may have your body screaming for electrolytes and carbohydrates.

For those who play sports regularly, the question often comes up: which is more beneficial for you while exercising, Gatorade or water? The answer is: that depends on you — the type and duration of your activity, and what you put into your body before you exercise. You need to start out well nourished and well hydrated.

What happens to my body when I sweat?

As you may know, water plays a crucial role in how well our bodies function. It lubricates our joints and keeps tissues, including the eyes, nose and mouth, moist. Water helps to regulate body temperature, it moves oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, and it carries away toxins and waste. That salty sweat you work up during an intense game of basketball or a 10K race?

That’s your body flushing out waste products, but it’s also eliminating the sodium, potassium and other minerals, the electrolytes that your body needs to maintain optimal hydration during and after exercise.

Besides urination, we lose water through our skin and our lungs, so when you’re sweating and breathing heavy during exercise you know you are going to need to replace the water and the electrolytes. The balance of minerals and carbohydrates in the blood directly affects how well the body absorbs the water so it can bring it to the heart, lungs and other organs.

When that balance is off, the body either retains too much water making you bloated, or it sheds water too quickly making you dehydrated. Neither of those conditions is favorable to beneficial or enjoyable exercise. Water doesn’t do any good when it’s not circulating through the body or when it runs straight through. Research shows that dehydration negatively affects performance, but you already knew that if you exercise regularly.

Are Sports drinks a good way to rehydrate?

Sports drinks are marketed to consumers as a way to quench thirst, replace lost electrolytes and boost or restore energy, all things water can’t do all by itself. That doesn’t mean that Gatorade or another sports drink is necessary during exercise or that there aren’t other, possibly better, ways to keep your body hydrated and your energy levels up.

Sports drinks are high in sodium

Sports drinks may have too high a sodium content for certain people, especially those with heart problems. Sodium is essential, and is the point of electrolyte replacement, because it helps the body to absorb and use water, but when that water is retained around the heart it can be quite dangerous. Be sure and follow your doctor’s advice on sodium intake and realize that most bottles of sports drink contain 2 to 4 servings, so multiply the sodium content by the number of servings if you plan to drink the whole bottle.

Sports drinks are high in sugar

Another issue to be aware of with sports drinks is that they may contain other ingredients that you want to avoid such as high-fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners. Simple sugars, like high-fructose corn syrup, raise blood sugar quickly for a burst of energy while the complex sugars found in fruits and vegetables tend to provide sustained energy.

Remember when you were a kid and you ate too much candy or birthday cake? At first you may have bounced off the walls with excess energy, but later you were a cranky whine pot who needed a nap. That’s what hi-glycemic foods, like simple sugars and starches, can do to an athlete while lo-glycemic foods help sustain energy because they maintain balanced blood sugar.

While some might argue about the addition of carbs into sports drinks, the American College of Sports Medicine suggests that it helps replace lost glycogen in the muscles during physical activity.

If sugar and other ingredients concern you, be sure and read the label before downing that 32-ounce bottle of Gatorade.

Should I drink water or Gatorade after exercise?

Deciding between water and Gatorade depends on your level of exercise, dietary restrictions, and general preferences.

So, if you decide to use sports drinks, it is important to know when and how to use them. When you are planning to do light or moderate exercise, drinking water is usually sufficient. That 30-minute walk on the treadmill or a quick pick-up game of basketball on your lunch break doesn’t cause your body to lose much water, so if you stay properly hydrated throughout the day a sports drink may simply add sodium and calories you don’t want and your body doesn’t need.

On the other hand, intense exercise such as the Incline hike, Olympic training, or an overwhelming bike up Pike's Peak may have your body screaming for electrolytes and carbohydrates.

For intense or extended exercise, some experts suggest sipping heavily diluted sports drinks or other electrolyte replacements throughout the activity. This is a better idea than alternating between water and a sports drink for two reasons:

1.) It replaces the lost electrolytes at close to the same rate you are losing them. The key is keeping the correct balance so the body can use the water and minerals efficiently.
2.) Your body needs carbohydrates for energy, but if you take them in all at once in the form of simple sugars, that burst of energy you get may be quickly followed by a crash as your blood sugar drops.

Sipping an energy drink diluted with water gives the body a constant source of fuel without the highs and lows associated with flooding the body with sugar. You don’t want to be coming down off a sugar rush when you’re trying to dig deep and cross the finish line before your opponent.

The most important thing to maintain the balance of water and electrolytes your body needs to perform at its best is to drink plenty of water throughout the day, every day and to get the minerals your body needs by eating well. Fruits and vegetables are a good source of the minerals that help keep you hydrated and they are an excellent source of energy in the form of complex carbohydrates.

Colorado athletes benefit from consistent water-intake, a well-rounded diet, and being mindful of their body's needs. Let’s face it, if you start your exercise with a body that is already running on empty, a bottle of Gatorade is not going to do much for you. It is the things you do on a daily basis that make the most difference when it comes time to exercise and sports performance.

Remember, too, high altitude increases the demand for oxygen on your body so you may be losing more water than you realize through your lungs and skin. Because the mountain air is dry, sweat evaporates more quickly than it does in more humid environments, so you can’t necessarily gauge your level of intensity by the amount of sweat on your t-shirt.

Whether you’re running up mountains, or just enjoying their beauty from a distance, drink plenty of filtered or bottled water throughout the day and don’t let dehydration ruin your Colorado adventure.

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