Water For Athletes: Is It Enough?
Two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.
That’s the recipe for one of the most important natural resources on Earth: water. Water would exist without humans, but humans can’t exist without water. It was here before us, and it will be here after we’re gone. But even though water has kept humans alive since the dawn of man, should it still be your go-to choice for hydration during exercise?
Since the advent of Gatorade in the 1960s, people have attempted to design better versions of water – everything from adding extra electrolytes and vitamins to doubling the amount of hydrogen in the chemical recipe. Milk has even jumped into the fray with claims that it’s better than other sports drinks to fuel exercise.
But fancy branding and marketing aside, the question remains. Does water do enough on its own to hydrate your body and provide energy to fuel your exercise regimen?
From Ordinary People to Elite Athletes
To examine the answer to this question, we should first mention how people with different levels of athleticism require different amounts of nutrients and hydration to fuel their endeavors. For example, an elite distance runner traversing the desert for the Death Valley Trail Marathon will need to drink more fluids than the person walking an easy mile on the treadmill.
We should also separate the concept of hydrating our bodies from the concept of fueling our bodies. When we drink water to hydrate, we flush out toxins from our kidneys and other organs, add vitality and strength to our skin, and keep our digestive systems functioning normally. Hydrating also helps maintain the important balance of water and electrolytes in each of our cells.
In fact, a paper published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine back in 1998 provides excellent perspective. “The fact that even low levels of dehydration (e.g., equivalent to a 2% loss of body weight) impair cardiovascular and thermoregulatory response, and reduces the capacity for exercise, is beyond scientific dispute,” writes the author. If we take this statement as the measurement we need to determine if water is enough to satiate people engaging in physical exercise, then the answer is yes – water is enough. Staying hydrated will also keep your engine running by preserving your muscle function and reducing your body’s need to steal energy (glycogen) directly from your muscles, ensuring your muscle fibers continue to perform optimally.
Okay, so water keeps us hydrated. Everyone knows that. That just satisfies the first half of our question. But does water also give us energy?
Electrolytes as Energy
Water on its own does not provide exceptional levels of electrolytes – but it does help maintain the balance of water and salt in your body so that these electrolytes can continue to conduct electricity to your muscles to incite them to move. Without water, electrolytes are useless, like a string of lights without the string.
Electrolytes are salts in the body such as potassium, chloride, and sodium that conduct electricity to important areas like muscle fibers. When electrolytes are used up by exercise (or by the simple act of being alive), they are usually replenished by the food we eat. Since the term electrolyte is also a common marketing tool used by companies that make sports drinks, researchers published an in-depth look at the effectiveness of commercially available sports drinks to determine if they replenish electrolytes and improve performance as promised.
They found that sports drinks can help boost performance in athletes who are glycogen-deficient, but this boost was less observable in athletes whose muscles are glycogen-sufficient. (Meaning that your muscles already have enough energy to continue to perform optimally.) Also, they found that sports drinks are beneficial during athletic output, but not when consumed prior to exercising.
The Michigan State University Extension published an article in 2015 that lauded water for what it is – and shamed sports drinks for what they aren’t. This article points out that although sports drinks provide enough salt (a.k.a. electrolytes) to fuel increased levels of athletic performance, they just aren’t a replacement for the nutrients that you can get through regular food. For example, a banana and an oat bagel provide roughly three times the amount of sodium and potassium – both electrolytes – than a 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade.
Beyond athletic performance, water can also help boost your mood, according to a study published in 2014, “daily water intake increase led to a significant mood improvement in habitual low drinkers, who reported less fatigue, less confusion, less thirst, and who tended to be less sleepy.” So if you think about it another way, water can help boost performance by first decreasing fatigue and increasing motivation to exercise in the first place.
Enough is Enough
For most of us, drinking water before, during, and after exercise is enough to maintain optimal levels of hydration. As long as you are hydrating, adding extra reserves of electrolytes can boost your athletic performance, but only if you are adequately hydrated. Whether you choose to get your electrolytes through sports drinks or through your diet is up to you; just beware that most sports drinks contain high levels of sugar and potentially other synthetic ingredients.
Finally, there is one last warning to heed: hyponatremia. This is a condition caused by drinking too much water, and it can cause serious issues or death. Just like how dehydration is an imbalance between the salt and water in your cells, hyponatremia is also an imbalance, but this time, there is too much water and too little salt. So take everything in moderation – including water.
The answer to our question at the top – does water do enough on its own to hydrate your body and provide energy to fuel your exercise regimen? – is now easy to answer. Yes, water adequately hydrates your body during exercise. No, it does not directly provide electrolytes that fuel energy and movement – but it is responsible for creating the optimal environment for those electrolytes to carry out their primary function.
Whether you’re walking on the treadmill or running a race through the desert in July, just make sure you grab a bottle of water.