You don't need expensive, sugary drinks to hydrate during sport. [Photo: Bigstock]

Q&A: What’s the best drink to support exercise?

21 August, 2012

Q – What’s the best way to stay hydrated when you are exercising? I don’t want to use sports drinks but wonder if there isn’t some merit in using them sometimes because of the electrolytes they contain?


A – It’s important to have a sense of balance when it comes to sports hydration. Most of us aren’t elite athletes in need of intense hydration. For those of us  who hit the gym a couple times a week for 30 minutes, lugging a bottle of sports drink around is just silly (and expensive!). In fact, for any mild to moderate exercise including swimming, golf and walking, and for any physical activity lasting less than 45 minutes, water will rehydrate you adequately.

There are good reasons to avoid sports drinks. Their high acidity is one.  A recent review concluded that drinking them was like ‘bathing your teeth in acid‘. Another more recent review by Oxford researchers concluded that they were mostly ‘fashion accessories‘.

Nevertheless staying hydrated is important and for most purposes water is the best way to stay hydrated. Best practice would be to make sure you drink water before you exercise then, depending on the duration and intensity of your exercise regime, take more water , according to your thirst, at 20-30 minute intervals.

And there are natural alternatives to fizzy, sugary sports drinks. One of the best is coconut water. At the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) scientists described it as Mother Nature’s own sports drink. According to the researchers coconut water has everything your average sports drink has and more. It has five times more potassium than commercial rands like Gatorade or Powerade (good news if you are prone to cramps) and it replenishes lost nutrients and antioxidants that your body has lost during a moderate workout. it’s only downside is that it is low in sodium and it is sodium that most of us lose when we sweat hard. Provided you have an adequate diet however coconut water may be a good healthy alternative to sports drinks.

In one recent study researchers concluded that milk was a better way to hydrate active children than water or sports drinks. Milk has electrolytes that help replenish energy stores, keep muscles moving and boost performance. Chocolate milk is useful more as a recovery drink since it has protein and carbohydrates to repair muscle and replenish energy stores.

You could also try making your own sports drink (minus the artificial sweeteners, stabilisers and colours). The trick is to dilute the active ingredients so that you have a  drink of around 50 calories. Anything more and you may be taking in more calories than you burn off in an average session. You can dilute many combinations of juices (such as cranberry and lemonade) experiment to find a flavour that you like the most.

A very basic and very dilute sport drink can be made with:

  • 820 ml (28 oz) water
  • 120 ml (4 oz) cup orange juice
  • 2 ½ tbl honey
  • ¼ tsp sea salt

Heat a small amount of the water in order to dissolve the honey. In a jug or pitcher mix this with the remainder of the water and the other ingredients. Stir and refrigerate. Decant into a sports bottle for use during exercise.

Or you could try this more ambitious blend

Cherry Citrus Burst


  • 950 ml (32 oz) water
  • ½ tsp  sea salt
  • 60 ml (2 oz) raw honey
  • 60 ml (2 oz)  lemon juice (freshly squeezed is preferable)
  • 120 ml (4 oz) dark cherry juice (no added sugar)
  • 120 ml (4 oz) orange juice (freshly squeezed is preferable)


Pour 120 ml of the water in a saucepan and heat to boiling, remove from heat, add honey and salt and stir until dissolved. Add the remaining ingredients to a large pitcher, pour in the water with honey and salt, stir and refrigerate. You can decant into a reusable bottle to drink before, after and during intense exercise.