Which Post-Workout Drink is Best for Hydration?

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
September 14, 2018
What are the best post-exercise rehydration beverages?

You just finished your workout. Whether it was a 45 minutes of strength training, a five-mile run or a yoga class, you probably need to drink some fluids. Rehydration is an essential part of recovering from a workout -- it helps lower temperature and heart rate, lubricate joints, repair muscles, ward off muscle cramps, ease fatigue and keep the digestion process working properly. And of course, it helps prevent dehydration. 

Dehydration can be a serious problem. As you age, your risk for dehydration and its related complications rises. Why? Your body begins losing water after age 60. Your sense of thirst also wanes, which means when your body needs water, your brain may not signal you to drink. And taking diuretics and/or certain medications to treat blood pressure, depression, pain and insomnia only adds to the problem. Below normal fluid levels often affect kidneys while lowering blood pressure and blood volume, potentially leading to a host of health issues.

Although thirst and dry mouth are the most obvious signs of dehydration, other telltale signs exist such as headache, fatigue and dizziness. You can gauge your hydration level by the color of your urine. Straw-colored or light-yellow urine indicate proper hydration levels; whereas, darker shades of yellow suggest dehydration.  

While water is the go-to drink for everyone before, during and after physical activity, enhanced water, sports drinks, coconut water, chocolate milk and tart cherry juice also have value. Which beverage is right for you? Your activity and intensity level will dictate your choice. Although it’s not an exact science, some guidelines exist. Here’s what you need to know about the best post-workout drink options.

Post Workout Recovery Drinks


Reason for drinking it: Water is a natural source of hydration that your body needs. And since it has no calories or fat, you don’t risk undoing your exercise efforts like you would by drinking a high-calorie, high-sugar beverage.

Who’s it best for: Water is needed by both casual exercisers and hardcore athletes. For the most part, casual exercisers only need water to rehydrate; whereas, some athletes may need a sports drink, chocolate milk or tart cherry juice in addition to water to hasten the recovery process.  

Recommended amounts: Ideally, you should drink before, during and after workouts. Here’s are some hydration guidelines from the American Council on Exercise.
Drawbacks: Taste, or lack thereof, is probably the biggest drawback. You can easily make water a little more appetizing by adding fresh fruit or herbs. Sparkling water works just as well as plain tap water. If you sweat a lot during your workout and are concerned about fluid loss -- but don’t necessarily need a sports drink -- add a pinch of salt to it. And if you tend to feel a little low in blood sugar after your workouts, add a pinch of sugar.  

Enhanced Waters (also known as fitness waters or designer waters)

Reason for drinking it: They’re flavored, so you may find them more palatable than plain water, making it easier for you to get in the appropriate amount of fluid to stay hydrated. 

Who’s it best for: Enhanced waters can work for casual exercisers and athletes. Many enhanced waters are supplemented with electrolytes, which aren’t necessary for a casual exerciser, but might foster a quicker recovery for an athlete.  

Post-exercise recommended amount: If you’re a casual exerciser, follow the American Council on Exercise guidelines on water consumption, which should be about a cup (8 ounces). If you’re an athlete, you may need more, as you should be replacing the amount of fluid you lost in sweat. 

Drawbacks: The calories vary among enhanced/fitness waters. While some brands are as low as 10 calories per serving, others are as high as 120 calories per serving, and you’ll need to account for the additional calories (as well as sugar) to manage your weight. Keep in mind, most of these drinks are highly processed and list artificial sweeteners and flavorings among their ingredients. If you’re choosing to hydrate with an enhanced water simply because of the flavor, try flavoring plain water with fruits or herbs. And if you’re drinking it for the supplements, you might be better off with a sports drink or even coconut water.  

Sports Drinks

Reason for drinking it: It replaces water, sugar and electrolytes – electrically charged minerals (or ions) involved in many important bodily functions – lost after prolonged physical activity. When continuously working out, especially in a hot environment, you’ll sweat, losing water and electrolytes. Blood sugar levels may drop as well. Sports drinks are the equivalent of a “one-stop shop” to replenish the body and recover.

Who’s it best for: anyone engaging in a prolonged, continuous workout, lasting between one and four hours without rest periods. Good examples are long-distance runners and cyclists. Some studies suggest that rehydrating with sports drinks may help prevent fatigue among athletes who play team sports, which are more intermittent in nature than continuous. And sports drinks can also benefit yogis who take 90-minute Bikram or hot Moksha yoga classes, which are typically taught in a studio heated between 92 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit.   

Post-exercise recommended amount: Ideally, athletes should drink the amount of fluid they lost during training. It’s possible to lose between 16 and 24 ounces of fluid through sweat per hour of intense exercise. Properly hydrating means you should weigh yourself before and after your training session, figure out how many ounces of fluid you’re down and drink that amount.  
Drawbacks: Sports drinks are processed beverages. If you’re not a fan of processed foods, sports drinks may not be your go-to post-workout recovery drink. And if you’re needlessly consuming sports drinks, you’re adding a lot of extra sugar, sodium and calories to your diet.

Coconut Water

Reason for drinking it: Coconut water is a good source of some electrolytes and is low-fat with far less sugar and calories than chocolate milk and some sports drinks. 

Who’s it best for: The jury is still out on this. Coconut water can be healthful, but there’s very little scientific evidence suggesting that it hydrates better than water, making water a better choice for casual exercisers. It’s a good source of some electrolytes (particularly potassium), but it’s not a complete source. Because it also lacks protein and antioxidants, sports drinks, chocolate milk and tart cherry juice are often better picks for athletes. However, if you’re not thrilled with rehydrating with a processed sports drink or sugar-laden chocolate milk, add a little salt to coconut water and see if works for you.       

Post-exercise recommended amount: If you’re a casual exerciser, follow the American Council on Exercise guidelines on water consumption, which should be about a cup (8 ounces). If you’re an athlete, you may need more, as you should be replacing the amount of fluid you lost in sweat. 

Drawbacks: It’s a little high in sugar and again, it’s a good source of only a few electrolytes. Although coconut water is marketed is natural, some brands are quite processed. When buying coconut water, look for a brand that’s not from concentrate and made without: preservatives, added sugar, heat pasteurization and artificial flavors, sweeteners and colors. 

Chocolate Milk

Reason for drinking it: It helps muscles rebuild and rehydrate after a tough work out. Chocolate milk is a great source of carbohydrates and protein, helping muscles recover quickly. Plain milk also can be effective, but it has much less carbohydrates than chocolate milk. Studies suggest that chocolate milk, especially the fat-free variation, is more effective than most beverages, including sports drinks, in replenishing glycogen (fuel storage) in the muscles. The high-water content and electrolytes help rehydrate your body, while the calcium, magnesium and vitamins A and D support bones and joints. 

Who’s it best for: It’s great for high-endurance athletes, but it can benefit anyone engaging in intense workouts lasting longer than 60 minutes. 

Post-exercise recommend amount: If you’re a smaller person or had an easier workout, you might only need 8 ounces after a workout, but if you’re a larger person or an elite athlete, you may benefit from 16 ounces. Use the same logic when selecting the fat content. If you’re a weekend warrior, you probably don’t need a lot of extra saturated fat in your diet, so fat-free or low-fat milk is probably a better option; whereas, if you’re an elite endurance athlete – who burns fat at a high rate -- whole chocolate milk is probably better for you. Most experts recommend drinking milk 30 to 60 minutes after exercising. Athletes may want to follow the advice given to Duke University student athletes: drink milk within 20 minutes of your training. 

Drawbacks: If you don’t need to rehydrate with chocolate milk, you’re adding a lot of unnecessary sugar (and possibly saturated fat) to your diet. And if the chocolate milk really is the best choice, you need to factor in calories, fat and sugar grams into your daily diet.

Tart Cherry Juice

Reason for drinking it: It helps muscles recover. Tart cherry juice is rich in antioxidants and a couple of small studies found that it helps reduce exercise-induced muscle damage, inflammation and soreness after training or an athletic event. The high-water content helps replace water lost in sweating.

Who’s it best for: Runners seem to benefit the most from tart cherry juice, but studies also suggest that weight lifters may recover quicker if they drink tart cherry juice pre- and post-workout.

Pre- and post-exercise recommended amount: For best results, drink 10 ounces before and 30 minutes after a workout. 

Drawbacks: The calories and grams of carbohydrates in tart cherry juice can add up; there’s about 120 calories and close to 30 grams of carbohydrates for every eight ounces of juice. 

Alternative Hydration Options

If the options above don’t appeal to you, these alternatives may work:

Plain milk: It has the same post-workout drink benefits as chocolate milk without the added sugar. 

Orange juice: It has a high-water content and it’s great for boosting blood sugar levels. Orange juice has a bad rap for being very high in sugar, but this can be easily remedied by diluting the juice with water.     

Tea: It may sound odd, but in terms of hydration, tea works seems to work as well as water plus it has antioxidants, making it an effective drink for recovery. And it doesn’t matter if it’s hot or iced; black, green, white or herbal; caffeinated or decaffeinated. 

Coffee: It’s historically been a controversial choice for hydration because it’s a significant amount of caffeine – a diuretic – which can thwart your hydration efforts. But a very small study found that caffeine doesn’t interfere with hydration (as long as you're not dehydrated); moreover, infusing high-carb drinks with caffeine helped refuel muscle glycogen stores quicker than beverages without caffeine.    

Have questions about dehydration? Talk to your primary care physician. And make sure you consult your primary care doctor before beginning or changing an exercise routine. If you’re looking for a primary care physician, check out MDVIP. Physicians in MDVIP-affiliated practices can customize a wellness plan for you. Find an MDVIP affiliate near you and begin your partnership in health »

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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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