by Cindy Dallow, 2 Doc Tri Coaching
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.
About Coach Cindy
Cindy came from a running background as well. After finishing her 12th marathon, she realized that she needed some cross-training. At the age of 45, she learned how to swim in a pool and then a few years later, she took the plunge into open water swimming. Fast forward 8 years and she has completed dozens of sprint, Olympic, and 70.3 races, and 4 full Ironman races.
Cindy is a Registered Dietitian with a PhD in nutrition from Colorado State University. She is also a certified USAT triathlon coach and a certified intuitive eating counselor.