Sneaky Little Sports Drinks

There’s a plethora of sports drinks on the market, and you’d have to be living under a rock not to know it. But are they really necessary? Do they deliver on what they promise? And is it possible to make your own sports drink for a lot less money?

Let’s take those questions one at a time. Are sports drinks necessary? For people in certain situations, yes. For example, after prolonged exercise (longer than 60 minutes), some sports drinks can help replenish electrolytes that the body excretes through sweat. Electrolytes (including sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium) carry electrical charges that help stimulate muscles and nerves. They also regulate the amount of fluids throughout your body, which affects blood pressure, blood volume, and cellular function. In a nutshell, electrolytes are good, and if you’re a “salty sweater” – that is, someone with a high sweat rate – it’s especially important that you replenish electrolytes after intense activity.

So are sports drinks delivering on their promises? To answer that, let’s take a closer look at what’s actually in them. The most predominant electrolyte we lose when we sweat is sodium, with its anion chloride coming in a close second. Thus, sodium chloride is the most important electrolyte needed in a sports drink. Interestingly, there’s a product on the market called Nuun Active that touts itself as having the “optimal blend of electrolytes for athletic performance”, but upon closer inspection, one finds that Nuun Active contains includes sodium bicarbonate, not sodium chloride.

Some sport drinks do contain minerals such as calcium and magnesium, but the amount we lose in sweat is so small, it’s debatable whether they’re necessary. In fact, magnesium citrate can have a laxative effect, combining with race anxiety to trigger the dreaded “runner’s trots” (diarrhea experienced during or after a hard run).

According to an article on WebMD, oral magnesium citrate products are “used to clean stool from the intestines before surgery or certain bowel procedures (e.g., colonoscopy, radiography), usually with other products”, and may also be used to relieve constipation. “Magnesium citrate is a saline laxative that is thought to work by increasing fluid in the small intestine. It usually results in a bowel movement within 30 minutes to 3 hours.”

Check the label of the popular sports drink PowerBar Endurance and you’ll find magnesium citrate in the list of ingredients. How much, you ask? Once scoop contains 4% of the DV for magnesium. That’s about 12 mg per scoop. That’s not a huge amount, but if you’re sipping this drink over a 1-3 hour run or ride, you just might find yourself in a mad dash for the porta-potty. Kind of gives new meaning to the phrase “know before you go”, doesn’t it?

Another ploy that manufacturers use to get you to buy their sports drink, is to fill it up with vitamins, which are unnecessary during exercise. Some of these drinks contain zero calories which is fine for sipping throughout the day but again, not during exercise and especially exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes.

One leading sports drink likes to brag that its product uses “non-GMO-sourced dextrose” to help the body “absorb fluids and nutrients faster”. Sounds impressive, right? However, there’s not a single research study showing that non-GMO-sourced dextrose increases the rate of fluid or nutrient absorption. While it’s true that sugar in the form of sucrose or dextrose can increase the rate of fluid absorption, it doesn’t have to be “non-GMO-sourced”. Again, they’re trying to make the product sound healthy.

The fact is, there are only four things your body needs during prolonged exercise: water, sodium chloride, potassium, and some form of carbohydrate. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that sport drinks contain “~20–30 meqILj1 sodium chloride, ~2–5 meqILj1 potassium and ~5–10% carbohydrate”. Notice there’s no mention of magnesium, calcium, vitamins, or any other nutrient.

Thus, a good sports drink only needs salt, sugar, and water to do its job. That leads to the question: can you make your own sports drink? Yes, you can! It’s both easy and cheap. Enjoy this recipe from Julie Hansen Nutrition. Drink up!

5% Carbohydrate:                 
4 Tbs. sugar
4 cups water
1/8 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. lemon juice

6.5% Carbohydrate:
5 Tbs. sugar
4 cups water
1/8 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. lemon juice

About the Author: Cindy Dallow