Do you keep a sports drink close by when you work out? Sports drink manufacturers would have you believe that you MUST have their product, but the reality is many sports beverages are nothing more than colored water with added sugar – sometimes LOTS of it. If you’re running a marathon, you might need that sugar but if you’re doing your daily workout, it’s just empty calories.
In reality, plain old water will work just fine for hydration if you’re working out in a relatively cool environment for an hour or less. It takes at least an hour to deplete electrolytes and more than that to drain your glycogen stores. It’s only when you’re exercising for longer periods of time or in a hot, humid environment that a sports drink becomes necessary.
The advantage of sports drinks is they contain electrolytes, like sodium, chloride, and potassium, that you lose when you sweat. Yet even then, you don’t have to reach for a commercial brand of sports drinks. Instead, consider these 4 healthy sports drink alternatives that are free of artificial colorings and better for you.
Sports Drink Alternative: Watermelon Juice
Watermelon is more than 90% water, a good thing when you’re trying to replace the fluids you lose through sweating. It also has a decent amount of potassium. One drawback to watermelon and watermelon juice, from an electrolyte replacement perspective, is it lacks sodium. One way to make up for that, if you’re exercising a long period of time is to add a little sea salt to watermelon juice. Plus, the other benefits of watermelon make up for its lack of sodium.
What benefits? For one, research shows exercisers who drank watermelon juice before a workout felt less sore over the following few days. That’s partially because watermelon has an abundance of a plant pigment called lycopene. It’s lycopene that gives it its vibrant red hue. The beauty of lycopene is it has anti-inflammatory activity as well. Another benefit: watermelon contains citrulline and arginine, two amino acids that help open up your blood vessels for better oxygen delivery. That means watermelon juice may actually improve your exercise performance.
Is it easy to find? Not necessarily, but you can make your own watermelon juice by removing the seeds and blending fresh watermelon in a blender. It is high in natural sugar, so don’t drink a ton of it unless you’re out there burning lots of calories.
Sports Drink Alternative: Coconut Water
Coconut water is an excellent source of potassium, one of the electrolytes you lose when you sweat. It’s also a decent source of sodium, although it has less than your average sports drink. According to a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, coconut water is on par with commercial sports drinks for rehydration. When researchers tested coconut water and a carbohydrate and electrolyte-rich sports drink in healthy men, they found both drinks were adequate for hydration and exercise performance was equivalent with both.
Coconut water has science behind it. In a field setting, it has been used as a rehydration beverage for people suffering from fluid loss due to diarrhea or vomiting. Some research suggests that it has antioxidant activity as well. Unsweetened coconut water has around 6 grams of natural sugar per serving, less than many sports drinks. If you buy flavored versions, the taste is better but you’ll also get more sugar. Be aware that some brands of coconut water have added sugar. Still, it’s a more natural alternative to popular sports drinks as long as you choose your brand wisely.
Sports Drink Alternative: Bananas
Bananas? Yes! According to a study, eating half of a banana every 15 minutes during a workout is comparable to sipping an equivalent quantity of sports drink. Bananas are an excellent source of potassium; a key electrolyte your body loses when you sweat. With 30 grams of carbs per banana, you’ll also get the carbs you need for longer workouts.
Of course, munching on chunks of banana doesn’t do much for hydration. So, make sure you’re drinking water with your banana bites. As a bonus, bananas offer vitamin C, a vitamin that helps keep your immune system robust when you’re stressing your body with exercise. When you compare the nutritional impact of a banana with a commercial sports drink, the banana wins every time.
Sports Drink Alternative: Beetroot Juice
The beauty of beetroot juice is it’s a performance enhancer as well as a way to stay hydrated. Beetroot juice is loaded with nitrates that open up your blood vessels and speed delivery of oxygen to your muscles. Research shows drinking beetroot juice prior to a workout may improve exercise performance during endurance exercise. It’s also a good choice if you have high blood pressure. Research shows drinking a glass of beetroot juice a day lowers blood pressure.
Beetroot juice also contains a compound called betaine that helps calm inflammation. That comes in handy after a strenuous workout! As far as electrolytes, beetroot juice is a reliable source of potassium and contains modest amounts of sodium to help replenish the electrolytes you lose through sweating.
Sports Drink Alternative: Make Your Own Hydration Beverage
Why not craft your own hydration beverage? You can find dozens of recipes for making your own sports drink online. Not only do you save money, but you avoid the plastic bottles containing BPA that most sports drinks come in. Place your homemade sports drink in a stainless steel water bottle instead. Experiment by making a variety of beverages. Choose ones that use natural ingredients like fruit. Many recipes use coconut water as a base, giving you the advantage of the abundance of potassium that coconut water contains.
The Bottom Line
You don’t need a sports drink every time you work out, and even when you do, you don’t have to buy commercial brands. Give one of these five sports drink alternatives a try instead.
Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition20129:1. DOI: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-1
Live Science. “Watermelon: Health Benefits, Risks & Nutrition Facts”
Runner’s World. “Watermelon Juice: The New Beet Juice?”
PLOS One. “Bananas as an Energy Source during Exercise: A Metabolomics Approach” May 2012.
Science Daily. “Bananas are as beneficial as sports drinks, study suggests”
Medical News Today. “Drinking beetroot juice reduces high blood pressure, trial shows”
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