Electrolyte-promoting sports drinks have been the drink of choice on team sidelines and after races for decades. But are they really the best thing to drink after your workout?
Sometimes they are, according to Jonathan Maher, M.D., a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine subspecialist with Carilion Clinic, but it’s not that simple.
“The right post-workout drink depends on your activity,” he explained.
Water is the best choice after most activities, such as after a neighborhood walk, jog or yoga session. In fact, water should be your go-to drink throughout the day, even if you don’t find time to get your workout in.
Dr. Maher suggested drinking throughout the day whether you feel thirsty or not. Water fills you up, rehydrates your cells and helps your kidneys and bowels to function properly, all without caffeine or sweeteners.
Light exercise conveys many health benefits but it doesn’t burn a lot of energy, so the sweeteners found in other drinks add excess calories where they’re not needed.
Sports drinks, known by brand names like Gatorade and Powerade, are an appropriate choice for rehydrating following more prolonged and intense aerobic activity, such as running, basketball or soccer—typically any exercise that lasts 60 minutes or longer and is particularly demanding, producing prolonged and intense sweating. Sports drinks contain minerals such as sodium and potassium that are depleted through vigorous exercise.
“We lose electrolytes when we sweat,” said Dr. Maher. “The theory behind sports drinks is to replenish essential minerals faster than our body can restore them on its own.”
However, Dr. Maher cautioned against the use of sports drinks following casual exercise.
“The electrolytes contained in sports drinks can improve muscle function and help our body reabsorb the fluids that we drink back into our bloodstream,” he said. “Nevertheless, they are not always the best choice if you are doing anything but a prolonged, intense workout. The additional sodium content can actually be harmful to your body if you have not depleted your reserves during the workout. The typical American diet is already very high in sodium content, and regularly consuming sports drinks can push those levels higher, increasing your risk for high blood pressure and heart disease, among other issues.”
Protein-rich drinks—like chocolate milk—can be an excellent choice after intense weight training or high muscle-stress activities like CrossFit. Protein helps muscles heal following exertion, and ingesting protein in liquid form gets those nutrients to your muscles with minimal delay in your digestive system.
"Chocolate milk generally has the ideal carbohydrate to protein ratio," said Christopher John, M.D., a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine subspecialist with Carilion Clinic. "It also contains minerals, such as calcium and vitamin D, which can be deficient in runners. Also, it can cost quite a bit less than commercial replacement drinks, so that's something to consider."
Dr. Maher adds, “A protein drink or snack following an intense muscle stress can be very beneficial for strength gains and workout recovery. When you add chocolate to protein-rich milk, you add additional carbohydrates in the form of sugars that are converted to glycogen and directly support muscle protein repair and growth, and avoid muscle breakdown for energy metabolism.”
Milk drinks and many commercial protein drinks may contain potential allergens, so it’s important to read labels and consult your health care provider if you have concerns or history of an allergy.
Start With a Full Tank
Perhaps more important than refueling after exercise is pre-fueling, so you are hydrated before you begin.
“Staying well hydrated is very important for daily life and for athletic performance," explained Dr. Maher. “When the feeling of thirst kicks in, you are already operating at a fluid deficit. You can improve your athletic performance by drinking water throughout your normal daily routine and increasing your fluid intake before the initiation of exercise.”
And that goes for refueling afterward as well. The simplest and least costly option—water—is the best choice for most people and following most workouts.
“Water has been the ultimate sports drink for thousands of years and except in select situations remains your best choice,” said Dr. Maher.