Sports drinks vs water for walkers? Do you need the carbs, sugar + electrolytes?

Sports drinks are marketed for both serious sports and casual exercise, but do you actually need the electrolytes, sugar, and calories when walking? It turns out that most walkers would be fine with plain water, but there are times where you can benefit from electrolytes – particularly on long walks. You’ll want to watch out for the sugar and calories in sports drinks. Even during long-distance, brisk-paced fitness walks it might take your entire recommended 30 minutes of walking to burn off those calories.

There are better options, even if you’re walking an hour a day or doing intense walking workouts. The best sports drink you can drink is actually water! Water is also the best zero-calorie sports drink, and you can make your own electrolyte water by adding some simple ingredients. Here’s a breakdown of sports drink calories, carbs, sugar and more along with other information you need to make the right decision.

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What is in most sports drinks?

Sugar in a glass - sugar water concept
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Most sports drinks are primarily water, sugar, salt and some form of flavoring. That essentially works out to flavored sugar water. If that sounds familiar, soda is essentially a very similar drink (thought soda contains a bit more sugar and is usually fizzy).

Sports drinks are useful for serious athletes or people doing very intense exercise because the sugar is quickly absorbed and easily available energy to athletes. Think of a football or soccer player that needs a quick drink and boost before getting back into the game, or a long-distance runner in the middle of a race.

For regular walkers, drinking sports drinks (basically sugar water) is just added sugar to our daily diet. We’ll cover later why for most walks, water is all you need. First, let’s look at the calories and nutrition information for generic sports drinks.

Generic Sports Drink Nutrition Info

A 20 oz (591ml) bottle of a regular sports drink (like Gatorade) has 140 calories. Here are the basic nutrition facts for generic sports drinks.

Sports Drink (1 20oz bottle)

  • 140 calories
  • 36 g carbohydrates
  • 34 g sugar
  • 0 g protein
  • 0 g fat
  • 0 g fiber
  • 75 mg potassium
  • 270 mg sodium

Calories in a bottle of sports drink (plus comparisons)

Sports drinks in different colors
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There are about 140 calories in a regular bottle of sports drink. This can vary depending on the brand, and some brands offer lower or no-sugar options. We’ll start by looking at full-sugar, regular sports drinks:

The closest comp for a 20 oz bottle of sports drink is a 12 oz can of cola – 140 calories, 39g carbs, 39g sugar.

A 20 oz bottle of cola is about 240 calories and 65 g of carbs (65g of sugar). Compared to that, sports drinks are a better choice. But almost anything is a better choice than soda – swapping out a soda for almost anything will save calories and benefit your health in the long run.

When you think about whether to grab a sports drink for your walking workout, ask yourself if you’d grab a can of coke as a post-workout refresher. When you think in those terms, the calories, carbs and sugar in sports drinks don’t really seem worth it.

What to drink instead?

Woman drinking water during a run or walk
Samuel Borges Photography / Shutterstock

Plain water has zero calories, zero sugar and is all of the hydration that most people need. Especially on shorter walks, you can get by with water alone. For people who think plain water is boring, you can add flavor by adding fruit slices or other zero or low-cal options. If you even decided to add pure sugar to your water, you’d likely not add as much sugar as the 34g you’d find in most sports drinks. Unless you’re walking for extremely long periods of time or going very fast, you probably don’t need the calories of sports drinks for any kind of performance boost.

1 cup of coconut water is about 45 calories, but also contains fiber, a bit of protein and much more potassium than a sports drink bottle. 2.5 cups (20 oz) of coconut water is about 113 calories, which isn’t too much lower than an equivalent amount of sports drink. However, that coconut water would have around 23 g of carbs (vs 36 for the sports drink), and would also contain 6.5 g of fiber and 4.5 g of protein.

How long will it take to walk off 1 sports drink bottle?

Different generations walking for fitness together in park
adriaticfoto / Shutterstock

If you’re walking at a brisk pace of around 3.5 mph, here’s how long you’d need to walk to burn off the calories in 1 20 oz bottle of sports drink (based on your calories burned walking):

1 20 oz bottle of sports drink (140 Cal)

  • 150 lb walker – 31 minutes
  • 180 lb walker – 27 minutes
  • 205 lb walker – 24 minutes

You could drink half or dilute it with water, but you can see that that one bottle can undo an entire walk. As it’s all sugary carbs, a sports drink is unlikely to fill you up. You’re probably just as likely to eat a post-walk snack as you would without the sports drink, so you’re just adding calories. You’d be better off drinking a bottle of water instead, potentially flavored with fruit slices or something of that nature.

What about zero-cal sports drinks?

You can find lower or zero-calorie sports drinks. These drinks typically contain electrolytes and artificial sugar alternatives that are sweet but don’t contain calories. Zero-cal sports drinks are likely better for you than regular full-sugar sports drinks. You’ll get less sugar and calories, and they’re probably better for your eating plan.

There is evidence that zero-calorie drinks (like diet soda), and artificial sweeteners can actually contribute to weight gain or at best have no effect on weight loss. A study by the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that artificial sweeteners did not generally lead to weight loss. Longer-term studies showed that artificial sweeteners were linked to weight gain, diabetes, and other heart issues.

Whether or not the science on zero-cal sweeteners is settled, you can avoid the potential risks by simply drinking water instead!

Carbs in sports drinks

Man drinking a sports drink after a run
GaudiLab / Shutterstock

A 20 oz bottle of sports drink has about 36 g of carbs. That’s about the same as a 12 oz can of soda. It’s also slightly more calories than you’d find in a glazed donut (!), though the sports drink bottle contains fewer calories due to not having the fat in a donut.

Carbs aren’t necessarily bad, and if you’re doing extremely intense exercise (like jogging long distance or doing competitive sports), you may need that energy boost to perform at your best. For most walks, even more intense versions like walking inclines, walking stairs or interval training, you probably don’t need the benefit of extra carbs from a sports drink.

Sugar in sports drinks

Sports drinks are almost pure sugar, with up to 34g of sugar. That’s about 8 teaspoons of sugar or about 8 sugar cubes! That’s more sugar than a glazed donut and about the same as 17 large jelly beans.

That may be great for athletes who need to keep running or stay in the game longer, but for walkers, that’s sugar that most people really don’t need in their diets.

What about electrolytes

Flavored water with lemon and mint
Antonina Vlasova / Shutterstock

Electrolytes are minerals that help fluids reach your cells and keep your body functioning normally. As you sweat, electrolytes are lost in the water that you sweat out of your body. The amount of electrolytes that you actually lose is relatively small, however. Theoretically, if you do sustained exercise (typically over several hours) and replace only the water and not the electrolytes, the sodium in your body can drop to dangerously low levels. This can lead to cramps, and in severe cases serious damage to your body.

You may need additional electrolytes if you’re exercising for more than 1 to 1.5 hours, and if you’re doing particularly vigorous exercise. If you’re sweating a lot, or exercising in hot conditions (which leads to more sweat), you’re more likely to need electrolytes. Walking is typically not intense enough to require electrolytes unless you’re walking for long periods of time, in very hot weather or are getting really intense.

Note that sports drinks actually don’t contain a ton of sodium anyway. Most people get too much sodium in their daily diets already. If you determine you need electrolytes, or if you’re doing very intense exercise, you can actually make your own electrolyte water (or buy electrolyte tabs). Simply add small amounts of fruit juice and a tiny bit of salt to your water and you’re good to go! Here are a few options from

Fiber in sports drinks

Sports drinks contain no fiber, as they’re mostly sugar water. That’s one reason they’re not very filling.

Fat in sports drinks

Sports drinks contain no fat, as they’re mostly sugar, water and electrolytes.

Protein in sports drinks

Sports drinks contain no protein. There actually are protein sports drinks you can buy, but most regular sports drinks do not contain any.

Who might benefit from sports drinks?

If you’re going on a very long hike, or need to walk for several hours, the sugar and energy from sports drinks may be helpful. In this case, you actually may need an electrolyte boost.

If you’re doing a competitive 5k race or walk, you may want to drink a sports drink or some other energy boost to get your very best time. Team sports athletes may be able to use the energy to perform at their best, but do remember that those calories can really add up. If you’re playing 2 hours of basketball on the weekend, you can probably afford to burn off those calories. Going for a walk around the block, however, probably doesn’t warrant the extra sugar.

Final thoughts

Sports drinks are essentially sugar water, which can be useful for endurance or team sports athletes that need to perform at their best – no matter how many calories they have to take in. For walkers, good old plain water is probably the best option You can add low-cal flavor to your waters by adding fruit slices, a cinnamon stick or something else to spice it up. If you’re on a long walk or feel you need the energy, consider zero sugar energy drinks (water is still better) or dilute energy drinks with half to 3/4 water.

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