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Good hydration: The pros and cons of different drinks for running

Good hydration: The pros and cons of different drinks for running

Before a run, what do you fill your water bottle up with – water, a sports drink, coconut water?

Runners know how important good hydration is. But with a host of beverage options to choose from, which is best for staying hydrated on the run? Well, that depends. Each beverage comes with its own benefits and drawbacks.

Water

  • Pros: It’s essentially free, easily accessible – many trails have water fountains —and calorie-free. Plus, it’s almost guaranteed every race will offer water on the course.
  • Cons: Water doesn’t contain any carbohydrates or electrolytes – like sodium, potassium, and magnesium. On tough, hot, and long runs, our bodies lose electrolytes through sweat. It’s crucial we replenish these electrolyte stores to maintain the body’s fluid balance.
  • Best for: Short runs. If you prefer to only drink water, carry some other type of food containing electrolytes – like gels or chews – on longer runs (learn more about fuel for runners).

Full-calorie sports drinks

  • Pros: Sports beverages like Gatorade and Powerade contain the perfect, science-approved mix of carbohydrates and electrolytes for endurance athletes.
  • Cons: Sports drinks cost more than water and relatively high in calories. If you get used to a certain brand or flavor, be prepared to carry your own beverage on race day because there’s a good chance it won’t be offered on the course. Drinking too much of a sports drink may also lead to stomach problems.
  • Best for: Runs over 60 minutes.

Low or zero-calorie sports drinks

  • Pros: They contain electrolytes to keep your body balanced and you don’t have to fret about taking in too many calories.
  • Cons: You need calories on longer runs, and these beverages may not pack enough. Most low and zero-calorie sports drinks are also made with artificial sweeteners which may cause digestive issues.
  • Best for: Zero-calorie sports drinks can be used in place of water on shorter runs if you prefer your fluids flavored. Low calorie sports beverages are OK for longer runs, but take along some extra fuel as well.

Coconut water

  • Pros: Some studies show that coconut water rehydrates athletes just as well as sports drinks and better than water. Coconut water is low in calories and high in potassium.
  • Cons: Many people dislike the taste, it’s pricier than sports drinks, and can be difficult to find. It’s also pretty low in calories and sodium, which can be a drawback on long runs.
  • Best for: Short to mid-distance runs and people who aren’t heavy sweaters.

Homemade electrolyte beverages

  • Pros: You know exactly what it going into your drink and can keep costs down. (Related: How to make your own energy drinks)
  • Cons: It may not contain the ideal mix of electrolytes. Not taking in enough electrolytes may cause you to bonk, while too many may cause stomach problems.
  • Best for: Mid- to long-distance runs as long as you’ve tried the beverage and are used to it.

Like most things with running, know that what drink works best for one runner won’t necessarily be optimal for you. It will take some trial and error to figure out your beverage of choice for different types of runs. For example, I stick with water for runs less than 4 miles unless it’s really hot out. On longer runs or when the temperature is high, I prefer a mix of half water, half full-calorie sports drink – but I usually carry other fuel as well.

To learn more about how much liquid to drink and when to drink it, check out our hydration 101 tips.

Written by Jen Matz.

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