Sneaky Little Sports Drinks

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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 endurance athletes, yes.

For example, after prolonged exercise (longer than 60 minutes), sports drinks can help replenish electrolytes that the body loses through sweat. The predominant electrolyte we lose when we sweat is sodium, with its anion chloride coming in a close second. Sodium and chloride regulate the amount of fluids throughout your body, which affects blood pressure, blood volume, and cellular function. Thus, sodium chloride or "salt" is the most important ingredient in a sports drink.

If you’re a “salty sweater” – that is, someone with a high sweat rate – it’s especially important that you replenish sodium during and after intense activity. Fortunately, this is fairly easy to do with food as there are many sodium-containing foods in the typical American diet. However, it's a bit harder to replace sodium while running because it's hard to eat real food while running.  This is where sport drinks come in handy as it's easier to drink than eat and for events less than two hours, most athletes can get all the sodium they need from a good sports drink. For longer events, a combination of different products can be utilized to replace the sodium lost in sweat.

It's also important to make sure the product contains sodium chloride, as chloride is essential for regulating fluid balance. 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 a combination of sodium bicarbonate and sodium carbonate that react with citrate to form sodium citrate (instead of sodium chloride). Why is that a problem? Because the primary side effect of sodium citrate is "tetany" or intense muscle spasms. Who needs that during a race? Why not just use sodium chloride since chloride plays a major role in fluid regulation?

So, what about potassium, calcium, and magnesium? Losses of these electrolytes in sweat are negligible so they really don't need replacing during exercise. But many sport drinks contain them anyway - probably to make you think that you need them - but adding them only drives up the cost of the product.

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Not only are calcium and magnesium unnecessary in a sports drink, magnesium citrate, the form of magnesium used in many sport drinks, can have a laxative effect, something you definitely don't want during a race! 

According to 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.” Um, no thank you!

Check the label of many popular sports drinks and you’ll find magnesium citrate in the list of ingredients. How much, you ask? Some have up to 240 mg per scoop! Even if the amount of magnesium in the drink is small, if you’re sipping this drink over a 2-4 hour run or ride, you might find yourself in a mad dash for the porta-potty. 

Another ploy that manufacturers use to get you to buy their sports drink, is to fill it up with vitamins, which are completely unnecessary during exercise. Sure, we need vitamins for good health, but they serve absolutely no purpose during endurance exercise. 

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 better than it is. 

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

Thus, a good sports drink should contain only three things: water, carbohydrate, and salt. Anything else is "fluff", which brings up the question: can you make your own sport drink? Yes, you can! Get our recipe here.