Water breaks might be the last thing you’re thinking about during an intense workout session or a long-haul hiking adventure, but taking stopping for a drink can be a lot more important for your performance than just quenching your thirst.
Proper hydration allows our bodies to regulate temperature, maintain joint health, and deliver critical nutrients to cells. Drinking enough water keeps your energy up and immune system functioning, and helps you sleep better, too. But during high-output activities—especially in the heat—you shouldn’t limit your hydration to water. You should also be replenishing electrolytes lost through sweat with a hydration drink.
Shannon O’Grady is the CPO/COO of Gnarly Nutrition, has a Ph.D. in nutritional physiology, and is an Ironman athlete, ultrarunner, and endurance cyclist. For O’Grady, adding electrolytes to her hydration routine is necessary for athletic performance—and importantly, supported by her background in science.
What to Look for in Hydration Drinks
“Electrolyte replacement becomes important when sweat loss—therefore electrolyte loss—is high,” says O’Grady, adding that it becomes even more critical if exercise duration extends beyond 60 minutes. According to O’Grady, the best hydration drinks focus on replacing sodium and chloride, the major electrolytes lost in sweat. The more you sweat and the longer you’re sweating for, the more an electrolyte replacement should be a priority.
“Look for hydration drink mixes that contain at least 200 to 250mg of sodium per 12 ounces,” O’Grady says. “Other electrolytes like potassium, magnesium, and calcium are lost to a much smaller extent in sweat, thus should be in smaller amounts in hydration drinks.”
Choosing the right hydration drink isn’t just a matter of picking your favorite flavor. The best fit might actually vary based on output and activity. Start by focusing on sodium content, and be prepared to experiment to find the ideal amounts for you.
“Sweat and electrolyte loss can vary greatly from person to person,” says O’Grady. “It can be impacted by temperature, humidity, altitude, clothing, genetics, and training status.” Before committing to one type of drink, try a few different brands and varieties to see what works best for your own fueling needs.
“I recommend starting at 250 to 300mg sodium per hour,” says O’Grady, “and salty sweaters need to aim for a higher intake.”
Steer clear of products with a bad electrolyte profile, no matter how good the marketing might be. O’Grady uses coconut water as an example. While the popular beverage has plenty of hydrating properties, it’s naturally high in potassium but low in sodium. If you’re stuck on coconut water for your hydration boost, look for varieties with added sodium. Additionally, steer clear of products with a ton of additives, which will negatively impact the passive absorption of water.
How You Should Hydrate
Good hydration practices aren’t limited to what you drink during exercise, but throughout the day as well. Staying hydrated more generally will have a positive impact on athletic performance, recovery, and injury prevention.
“Greater water loss via sweat will increase general hydration needs,” says O’Grady, “so active individuals need to pay particular attention to hydration both during and outside of exercise.”
Remember that everyone’s hydration needs are different in varying environments and with different types of output, so test a few options to see what works best for you before committing. Look for sodium levels, calorie replacement options, and even whether or not you want a jolt of caffeine with your drink as well.
The Best Hydration Drinks
In no particular order, here are some of the best hydration drinks on the market. We’ve listed select nutrition information per serving, and keep in mind you might be incorporating more than one serving per bottle.
Skratch Labs Sport Hydration Drink Mix
80 calories, 19g sugar, 380mg sodium
Skratch Labs’ drink ratio specifically matches the electrolyte profile an athlete loses in sweat. This means that per liter (not serving), the drinks have around 80mg of magnesium, 800mg sodium, 80mg potassium, and 100mg calcium. Skratch Labs looks to optimize absorption, with the aim of faster recovery and longer endurance.
The drink mix has a light enough taste to not feel overwhelming, but does have some of the higher sugar content in our drink selection. We recommend adding partial strength to your water until you know how your stomach handles it. “Some people might feel more gastric distress with products with higher sugar,” O’Grady says. “Be sure to test each new drink before you depend on it.”
Gnarly Nutrition Hydrate
30 calories, 4g sugar, 250mg sodium
Gnarly Nutrition Hydrate has lower sugar content than other options, with a more subtle flavor profile. This moderate amount of sugar hits the sweet spot (sorry) without going overboard in either direction, and O’Grady is a fan of this balance (it is her company, after all).
“Hydration drink mixes that contain small amounts of sugar could optimize your hydration,” she says. “Water is passively absorbed by the body, and small amounts of sugar can help actively ‘push’ water into your body.” Despite the lower sugar in this mix, it still has plenty of flavor to encourage you to drink more. We like the balance between sweet and tart, and that it uses no artificial colors.
Liquid IV Energy Multiplier
40 calories, 8g sugar per serving, 380mg sodium
The 380mg of sodium in Liquid IV’s Energy Multiplier is for the saltiest sweaters out there. This variety is caffeinated, with 100mg of natural caffeine from matcha and guayusa per serving. Liquid IV uses Cellular Transport Technology (CTT) to enhance the delivery and absorption of water using their special ratio of sodium, glucose, and potassium.
The flavors of this mix are among the closest to real fruit—a favorite amongst people who spike their water with a hydration mix throughout the day… not just during exercise.
Tailwind Nutrition Endurance Fuel
100 calories, 25g sugar per serving, 303mg sodium
Tailwind founder Jeff Vierling created the company after getting an upset stomach during an endurance event, and found himself desperate for a liquid calorie replacement to help with fueling during long endurance events without gut bombs of bars or gels.
With 100 calories per serving, Tailwind’s Endurance Fuel provides a healthy carb boost that can effectively replace gels or chews, without the gluey texture of other higher-calorie hydration mixes. We love that Tailwind is light enough that it doesn’t make you feel sluggish or full, but be aware that knowing the right amount to use can take some getting used to.
15 calories, 1g sugar, 300mg sodium
Nuun Sport comes in a convenient tube, which helps to prevent the individual “tab” servings from getting stuck together. These are portable and convenient, optimized for people who aren’t necessarily looking for calorie replacement.
Nuun also makes more calorie-dense options, but these lightly fizzed capsules (sweetened with Stevia) are some of their best sellers, helping settle people’s stomachs during long, hot days. These are a favorite for long-distance runners and hikers who don’t want to deal with loose powder or residue from individual packets gunking up the inside of their pack.
Gatorade Endurance Formula
90 calories, 13g sugar, 300mg sodium
Gatorade isn’t just a sugary sports drink anymore. The company’s Endurance Formula has more sodium for longer lasting hydration needs than the classic Gatorade with which you might be more familiar. This is optimized for endurance athletes, with 300mg of sodium and more electrolytes than the company’s other mixes.
The company also tripled the potassium from its Thirst Quencher line, raising the total to 140mg per serving to help prevent cramping during long workouts. It’s lower in sugar than some others on the list too, but has the classic sports drink flavor we know and love.
20 calories, 3g sugar, 260mg sodium
Hydrant has their own unique combination of sodium, potassium, zinc (helping build immunity), and magnesium for fueling during activity as well as active recovery. This is an excellent low-sugar option for athletes who might experience stomach issues from mixes with higher sugar ratios.
This mix uses real fruit juice powder to keep the calories low and the ingredients pronounceable. You won’t get a huge punch of flavor with this option, but enough to encourage hydration without a sticky film covering your mouth.
Propel Powder Pack
0 calories, 0g sugar, 210mg sodium
It never hurts to add a zero-calorie option, and while Propel is more often seen in bottle form, these individual sticks are ultralight and convenient.
This is on the lower end of sodium intake, which can work well for people who aren’t sure how their bodies will react to a new hydration routine. Along with electrolytes, these drink packets have vitamin B, C, and E for maximum replenishment.
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