The Runner’s Guide To Sports Drinks – The Pros, Cons, And How Much

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Cross Training For Runners
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David Dack

Looking to get the most out of sport drinks while running? Then you’ve come to the right place.

Hydration and electrolyte balance are critical elements in a your overall health. And if you log miles often,  mastering hydration is about much more than just drinking water – it’s about choosing the right sports drink to maintain a crucial balance of fluids and electrolytes.

In this article, I’m delving deep into the world of sports drinks for runners. I’ll guide you through the importance of hydration, the critical role of electrolytes, and how to smartly integrate sports drinks into your running regimen for peak performance.

Sounds like a great idea?

Then let’s get started.

What Are Sports Drinks?

Sports drinks are more than just flavored water; they’re a blend of science and nutrition, specially designed for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

These drinks are crucial for those involved in endurance sports like running, where they serve a triple role – rehydration, replenishment, and refueling.

Let me break down what goes into sports drinks and why each component is essential:


This is the backbone of any sports drink. The primary goal? Rehydration. When you sweat, you lose water, and sports drinks use their water content to help you replenish that loss efficiently.


Typically found as sugars like glucose, fructose, sucrose, or maltodextrin, carbs in sports drinks aren’t just for sweetening. They’re a quick energy source to fuel your muscles during a run and help you delay hitting that dreaded wall of fatigue. Post-exercise, these carbs are all about recovery, helping to refill your muscle glycogen stores.


The all-stars here include sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Think of electrolytes as the regulators of your body’s hydration and muscle function. They help maintain fluid balance, keep your nerves firing correctly, and your muscles moving smoothly. Sodium gets a special shoutout for enhancing fluid absorption and retention, ensuring the water you take in isn’t just quickly passed through.

In essence, sports drinks are a carefully crafted mix to support your body through the stresses of intense physical activity. They’re not just about quenching thirst; they’re about supporting your overall performance and recovery.

Benefits of Sports Drinks for Runners

If you’re struggling to keep a good pace, especially in hot conditions, then a sports drink might be thing you need for an extra oomph. Let me explain what you stand to gain from consuming a sports drink while training.

  • Electrolyte Replenishment: As you sweat, you’re not just losing water but also essential electrolytes like sodium and potassium. Sports drinks help refill these electrolyte stores, which is especially important during longer runs where you’re sweating a lot.
  • Energy Supply: The carbohydrates in sports drinks aren’t just sugar; they’re your muscles’ fuel. During prolonged runs, these carbs help maintain your blood glucose levels, giving you that much-needed energy to keep going and stave off fatigue.
  • Enhanced Hydration: Ever noticed how sports drinks make you feel more thirsty? That’s actually a good thing! The sodium in them stimulates thirst, encouraging you to drink more and, in turn, improving your water retention. This is super helpful during long, intense sessions when staying properly hydrated is a challenge.
  • Prevention of Hyponatremia: Drinking only water over extended periods can dilute your blood’s sodium levels, leading to hyponatremia, a potentially dangerous condition. Sports drinks maintain that crucial electrolyte balance, keeping this risk at bay.
  • Convenience: Let’s face it, managing hydration, energy, and electrolyte intake separately during a run can be a hassle. Sports drinks roll all these into one convenient package. This is especially handy during races or long training sessions.

Potential Downsides Of Sport Drinks

Ever grabbed a sports drink post-run, wondering if it’s really the recovery wonder it’s hyped up to be?

I’ve been there, downing these colorful drinks, wishing they’d undo the toll of those tough miles. But let’s take a real talk jog through the not-so-great side of sports drinks.

The Sugar Overload:

Most sports drink score high on sugars, and  many are packed with more sugar than you might need. A ‘British Dental Journal’ study points out their high sugar content and the risk it poses to your teeth. So, while you’re chasing hydration, you might also be on an unintended sugar rush.

The Stomach Rollercoaster:

Ever felt your stomach rebel during a run after a sports drink? That’s because too much of it can upset your stomach, causing cramps and discomfort. The ‘Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports‘ notes that sports drinks can cause gastrointestinal issues if you overdo it. It’s your stomach’s way of saying, “Ease up on the sweet stuff!”

Dietary Obstacles:

For those with dietary needs or health conditions, picking the right sports drink is like navigating a hurdle race. They often contain ingredients that might clash with your diet. Always read labels carefully – know what’s in your drink like you know your running route.

The Health-Conscious Run:

If you’re managing conditions like diabetes or heart disease, navigating sports drinks can be tricky. Their high sugar and sodium can throw unexpected challenges your way. The ‘Journal of the American College of Cardiology’ warns about the impact of too much sugar on heart health. So, if you have health concerns, it’s about choosing your fuel wisely.

Types of Sports Drinks

Looking to optimize your performance and recovery via a sport drink? Then you should learn more about the various types of sports drink and their specific benefits.

In general, sports drinks are classified based on their osmolarity – basically, how concentrated they are compared to your blood.

Let’s break down the three main types: isotonic, hypotonic, and hypertonic.

Isotonic Sports Drinks:

Composition: These have a similar concentration of salt and sugar as your body.

Benefits: They’re great at quickly replacing fluids lost through sweating while also giving you a carbohydrate boost.

Ideal for: Most runners will find isotonic drinks beneficial, especially during or after moderate to high-intensity workouts lasting over an hour. They offer a good balance of hydration and energy.

Hypotonic Sports Drinks:

Composition: These drinks have a lower concentration of salt and sugar than your body.

Benefits: Designed for fast fluid replacement, they’re more about hydration than providing energy.

Ideal for: If you’re doing light to moderate exercise and want to rehydrate without extra calories from carbs, or if you prefer a less sweet drink, hypotonic drinks are the way to go.

Hypertonic Sports Drinks:

Composition: These have a higher concentration of salt and sugar than your body.

Benefits: Their main job is to top up your daily carbohydrate intake and refill your muscle glycogen stores.

Ideal for: After a run for recovery, or during ultra-long events where you need prolonged energy. They’re not the best for rehydration but great for keeping your energy levels up over extended periods.

Choosing the Right Type of Sports Drink

Choosing the right sports drink for your run is like picking the best fuel for your car; it needs to match the journey ahead. Whether you’re gearing up for a quick jog around the block or prepping for a marathon, the right drink can make all the difference. Let’s break it down:

For the Casual Runs:

Heading out for a quick, light run? Hypotonic drinks are your go-to. They’re all about hydration without the extra calories or carbs that you might not need for shorter efforts. Perfect for when staying hydrated is the main goal, without the need for a big energy boost.

For the Long Hauls and Tough Workouts:

When you’re staring down the barrel of a long run or a high-intensity session, isotonic drinks step up to the plate. They offer a great mix of hydration and energy, thanks to their balanced carb content. These are the drinks that keep you moving, providing the stamina you need to push through.

Post-Run or During Endurance Tests:

After pushing your limits or during those endurance challenges, your body’s screaming for recovery and energy. Hypertonic drinks are here to answer that call. With a higher carb content, they’re all about refueling and recharging your energy stores, making them perfect for post-exercise recovery or keeping you going during those extra-long events.

What to Look Out for in a Sports Drink:

Not all sports drinks are created equal, and knowing what’s in them can help you choose the best one for your needs:

  • Carbohydrates: Look for drinks with easily digestible carbs like glucose or sucrose. They’re quick energy sources that help keep your engine running smoothly, delaying fatigue and refueling your energy post-run.
  • Sodium: This key electrolyte gets lost in sweat, so replacing it is crucial for maintaining fluid balance, nerve and muscle function, and preventing cramps and dehydration. It’s especially vital during those sweaty or long-duration runs.
  • Potassium: This partner-in-crime with sodium helps keep your cellular fluid balance in check and supports muscle function. Keeping potassium levels topped up can help fend off cramps and keep your heart beating strong.
  • Magnesium: A multitasker in muscle and nerve function, magnesium aids in energy production and is a hero for muscle relaxation and recovery after your run, helping prevent those dreaded cramps.

Timing and Consumption

Timing matters a lot when it comes sports drink. Here’s a practical guide on integrating sports drinks into your running routine:

Before Running

Begin hydrating with a sports drink 1-2 hours before your run. This is especially important for long or intense sessions. It ensures you start well-hydrated.

This pre-run drink isn’t just about hydration; it’s also about topping off those electrolyte levels. Getting enough sodium pre-run can improve fluid retention and help prevent fatigue before it starts.

During Running

Generally, water should do the trick for shorter runs. But, if you’re running in heat or you tend to sweat a lot, incorporating a sports drink can help.

However, for long runs (anything over one hour), it’s where sports drinks really shine. Try to consume about 6-8 ounces every 15-20 minutes, but this can vary based on how hard you’re running and your personal sweat rate.

After Running

After a long or tough run, sports drinks are great for quickly getting your fluid and electrolyte levels back to normal.

The carbs in sports drinks are not just for mid-run energy; they’re also crucial for refilling your glycogen stores post-run, aiding in recovery, especially if you won’t be eating a meal right away.

DIY Sports Drink Recipes

Making your own sports drinks is a fantastic way to stay hydrated and energized during your runs, plus it’s fun, economical, and customizable.

These recipes are not only healthier but also let you control what goes into your sports drink. Plus, they’re a great way to experiment with different flavors and ingredients based on what you like and what your body needs.

Here are three easy DIY sports drink recipes you can whip up at home:

Basic Homemade Sports Drink


  • 4 cups of water (or coconut water for natural electrolytes)
  • ¼ cup of lemon or orange juice (for flavor and natural sugars)
  • ¼ teaspoon of salt (for sodium)
  • 2 tablespoons of honey or maple syrup (for natural carbs)

Preparation: Just mix everything together until it’s all dissolved. Feel free to tweak the sweetness or saltiness to suit your taste.

Natural Electrolyte Drink


  • 4 cups of herbal tea (for flavor and antioxidants)
  • 2-4 tablespoons of sugar or honey (adjust the sweetness as you like)
  • ¼ teaspoon of salt
  • Optional: a pinch of magnesium or calcium powder for extra electrolytes

Preparation: First, brew the tea and let it cool. Then add the sweetener, salt, and any optional powders, stirring until everything’s dissolved.

Fruit-Infused Hydration Drink


  • 4 cups of water
  • ½ cup of fresh fruit juice (like orange or watermelon for a sweet twist)
  • Juice of 1 lemon or lime
  • ¼ teaspoon of salt

Preparation: Combine all ingredients in a blender for a smooth, homogenized drink. If you prefer, strain it to remove any pulp.


In the end, sports drinks can be a solid part of your running plan, but it’s all about how you use them. Think of them as a helper in your race, not the main player. The real deal? A balanced diet, staying hydrated, and tuning into what your body needs – that’s your winning lap.

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