Water or sports drink?

Are sports drinks beneficial during sporting events and exercise?

The most important thing that you can take with you or send with your child to a sporting event is water. Water is calorie free, doesn’t cost you anything (if you fill up your own bottle), and does wonders for performance. However, the most common beverage that you will find at practices and games isn’t water – its sports drinks. You’re probably wondering, don’t sports drinks help replace electrolytes?

What is an electrolyte? Electrolytes are salts and minerals that conduct electricity in the body. If our body lacks electrolytes, our muscles won’t contract correctly, whether that’s our leg muscles, arm muscles or even the heart muscle. Too much or too little of them can cause problems, not only cramping, but also weakness, confusion, irregular heartbeat or cardiac arrest. Our body does an amazing job of balancing electrolytes by preserving them when needed or getting rid of excess electrolytes through urine. When we sweat a lot, we lose additional electrolytes and it becomes very important to replace them.

Sports drinks contain electrolytes and are marketed towards athletes. Most of them also contain added sugar or sweetener. But what quantity of electrolytes do they really contain? The fact is, we will get way more electrolytes by eating adequate amounts of healthy snacks, especially fruits and vegetables. It is also true that the average athlete does not actually need added electrolytes. Electrolyte replacements are usually only needed if one is participating in intense, strenuous activity for more than one hour – essentially, electrolyte replacements are important for endurance or performance athletes. Table one below compares the amount of the most common and well known electrolytes: sodium and potassium, in commonly eaten foods versus a typical sports drink.

Table 1

Food Item

Serving size




20 ounces

238 milligrams

91 milligrams

Orange, 1 medium

1 medium

2 milligrams

256 milligrams

Sunflower seeds

2 ounces (about 1/2 cup)

186 milligrams

241 milligrams

Oat bran bagel

1, medium

620 milligrams

121 milligrams

Mozzarella cheese

1 ounce

191 milligrams

37 milligrams


1 medium

1 milligrams

422 milligrams

Peanut butter

2 Tablespoons

136 milligrams

179 milligrams

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture Nutrient Databank

Eating a snack or meal prior to practice or competition, and then fueling oneself with a snack or meal after the competition is the best way to replenish energy stores and electrolytes. For instance, having a bagel with two tablespoons of peanut butter and banana slices will provide 754 milligrams of sodium and 722 milligrams of potassium, far more than what 20 ounces of Gatorade will provide. Plus, it provides many other vitamins, minerals, and complex carbohydrates, including fiber, that are important to keep the body energized.

In addition, sodium is plentiful in the typical diet as it is, and should be limited according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The amount of electrolytes, especially sodium, lost during exercise varies on an individual basis and level of intensity – ask yourself, are you exercising for longer than one hour? Are you sweating a lot during the exercise? Will your meal or snack lack electrolytes? These examples are situations where sports drinks may be helpful; consider, is it necessary to replace electrolytes through a sports drink loaded with extra sugar for the typical 45 minute workout or one hour long practice that involves limited exertion? Probably not.

Michigan State University Extension offers classes that help people learn how to make healthy dietary choices and provide individual guidelines for physical activity.

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