When people decide to make a lifestyle overhaul, they tend to focus on planning their workouts and improving their diet. Hydration is a commonly overlooked, although no less important, aspect of becoming fit and healthy. There are an increasing number of sports drinks and vitamin waters on the market, but do these products really beat good old fashioned water?
The importance of water
More than two-thirds of our body weight is made up of water. Water plays an extremely important role in our everyday functioning as it transports nutrients, regulates body temperature, lubricates joints and allows chemical reactions to occur inside our cells. Water is the single most important nutrient you can consume.
Importantly, fat loss can only occur when the body is well-hydrated. This is because when you drink an insufficient amount of water, your heart has to work harder and your energy levels will decrease – meaning less energy is devoted to metabolising fat.
The average person should drink 1.5-2 litres of water per day, but more as activity increases. You should drink approximately an additional 500 millilitres of water for every hour of activity you perform. Just a 2 per cent drop in bodyweight (lost in sweat) can result in a significant performance reduction.
When you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated. Ideally, you should be keeping your fluids high so you do not reach the point of thirst. The best method of testing your hydration levels is checking the colour of your urine; it should be very pale. Any darker, and you are dehydrated.
In an ideal world, the only liquid you would consume is water. Soft drinks, fruit juices and milk are high in sugar and artificial ingredients which negatively affect the body. Coffee and tea act as diuretics, and therefore require an increased water consumption to compensate.
Unless you are doing high intensity, long duration (i.e. more than 60-90 minutes) endurance sports, you do not need to consume sports drinks. Your body stores glycogen in its liver and muscles, which is usually enough to fuel your workouts.
Many people make the mistake of assuming that sports drinks are healthy and use them to supplement their moderate lunch-time workouts, forgetting that they are essentially pure sugar. Because you generally do not have the need for such large amounts of carbohydrates, it ends up as fat on your body. These drinks are also promoted as a way to replenish sodium, potassium and other electrolytes lost during exercise, but during the course of normal training it is unlikely that these minerals would be completely depleted.
Furthermore, most sports drinks actually generate a dehydrating effect as the percentage of carbohydrates is so high that it delays fluid absorption. Unless you are a professional athlete, you do not need to consume sports drinks.
Coconut water has recently become very fashionable. It is marketed as a fat-free, low-calorie way to hydrate. Coconut water, like sports drinks, does not beat plain water in terms of hydration. Coconut water does contain potassium and other electrolytes, but it does not necessarily trump traditional water because of it. It still contains sugar and calories, which regular water does not.
In conclusion, the best way to replace water lost through exercise is by drinking plain water, filtered if possible. If you do not like the taste of plain water, you can add a slice of fresh lemon or lime, or drink sparkling water instead. For those who are training with weights, powdered branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) may be added to water to improve muscle recovery, assist in muscle growth and also improve the taste.