As an athlete, it can be difficult to manage your diet because there are often too many options to choose from. Should you drink plain water, sip a sports drink, or gulp a protein shake? 

Do you need electrolytes, and if so, which ones are the most important? Unfortunately, the answers to questions about sports nutrition are often complicated and depend on things like the style and length of your practice or game and the temperature.

As an athlete, sports drinks are an option to consider. Sports drinks aim to keep you hydrated and replace electrolytes you lose when you sweat a lot. The drinks have carbs and electrolytes like sodium and potassium that your body needs.

As much as sports drinks are a great option for athletes, you should drink them at the right time. When is it better to drink a sports drink instead of water?

Before Practice

You don’t need a sports drink before every practice or game, but if you last ate a few hours ago, a few sips of a sports drink can give you the fuel and water you need to have full energy at practice. A sports drink is excellent when you need something that won’t weigh you down and will give you both quick-digesting carbs and water.

A sports drink can also benefit students who have to eat lunch at school early and don’t have time for an afternoon snack. As you take your pre game drinks, you need to consider several factors, such as: 

Timing: It’s best to drink the sports drink 15–30 minutes before the game starts so that your body has time to absorb fluids and nutrients.

The length of the game: If the game is short and not too hard, water may be enough to keep you hydrated. But if the game is challenging and lasts long, a sports drink can help replace the fluids and electrolytes you lose through sweat.

Athletes may need different amounts of water and electrolytes based on their body size, how much they sweat, and the weather where they play. The best way to figure out how to stay hydrated is to talk to a sports dietitian or a doctor.

During High Energy Output

As mentioned, drinking sports drinks will help keep your energy level steady and keep you hydrated if you work hard during practice or a game. That means you should drink a sports drink between sprints, intervals, or breaks in any game like soccer that involves quick movements. 

You don’t have to drink an entire bottle of sports drink at once. A few sips at a time are enough. This is because if you drink too much or too quickly, it can make your next interval feel like it’s sloshing.

During Extended Exertion

Sipping a sports drink during a long effort game, like a cross-country practice that lasts more than 45 minutes, will help you keep the right electrolyte balance. This could help you avoid cramps, fatigue, and loss of coordination that come from mild dehydration. 

The carbohydrate in sports drinks also helps refill your glycogen stores, which are quickly used up during these longer, more sustained efforts. Again, you don’t want to drink the entire sports drink at once. Taking small sips will help you more during practice.

When Exercising in Hot Weather

Even a short practice can make an athlete lose water in hot or humid conditions. If you’re sweating a lot during practice, it means your body is losing water and electrolytes and working harder than usual. 

When you sweat, you lose electrolytes like sodium, and drinking too much plain water instead of a sports drink with electrolytes can be dangerous if your body gets out of balance. You need a sports drink to help fill up your electrolyte and water stores in such a situation.

During a Tournament

If you’re in a tournament or competition with multiple rounds within a few hours, sipping a sports drink throughout the day may be the best way to stay hydrated and full of energy without feeling like you have a lot of food in your stomach.

Many athletes feel nervous or queasy when they eat before a tournament, so a sports drink can be a better choice than a snack. However, feel free to snack if regular foods don’t bother your stomach.

When to Skip Sports Drinks

While sports drinks are beneficial in plenty of applications, there are some situations when you should avoid them. Some of these situations include: 

If your practice is short and easy, all you need to stay balanced is a few sips of water and a snack or meal an hour after practice. If you don’t like sports drinks, stick to plain water and salty snacks like pretzels during hot or long practices.

When you’re doing strength training, you don’t need a sports drink (unless you’re doing cardio, sweating a lot, and your heart rate is going up and down a lot). 

You also don’t need to drink a lot of sports drinks after your practice is over. This is because your body not only needs to be rehydrated after a workout, but it also needs protein and carbs. In such a situation, you would be better off drinking chocolate milk with protein, carbs, and water than a sports drink.

Eat a regular meal within an hour of practice and drink lots of water. Your body will usually get the carbs, protein, and electrolytes it needs to speed up the recovery process.

Final Thoughts

When you’re working harder than usual (in terms of time or intensity) or sweating a lot, a sports drink is the best way to replenish electrolyte stores and rehydrate. A sports drink also provides a small amount of fuel to help your body absorb the water better and improve workout performance.

As you use sports drinks, it’s important to remember that not all sports drinks are the same. When choosing them, choose those with less sugar and fewer calories and drink them in moderation.

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