Nourishing DIY sports drinks for athletes
As a sports nutritionist, I often get asked about sports drinks and for brand recommendations. Many athletes are taken in by the marketing hype around popular brands that not only contain the necessary sugar, water and salt, but also have an array of unpronounceable ingredients, including acidity regulators, stabilisers, artificial flavours, sweeteners and colourants to give them their typical fluorescent colour.
Athletes typically want a sports drink as an energy source to support their training session or race. But there is actually another physiological benefit. Consuming carbohydrates during exercise can moderate the stress response (cortisol) and prevent muscle protein breakdown and immunosuppression[1,2]. An athlete doesn’t really need one if they’re doing a low-intensity session. In fact, not having a sports drink during these types of sessions would be beneficial to stimulate aerobic training adaptations, such as mitochondrial biogenesis, and the upregulation of oxidative enzymes but in a context where cortisol levels are lower. As soon as intensity ramps up and the exercise is more prolonged, it becomes more important to moderate the stress response and nourish the body with a DIY sports drink. An athlete’s micronutrient and antioxidant requirements are also higher than the average active to sedentary individual… so why not contribute towards these requirements with a nourishing sports drink?
I’ve found these popular sports drinks exacerbate gastrointestinal distress symptoms in some of my endurance-based clients. Also, our body uses energy we could be putting to better use to detoxify anything that is not nutritive. This is something I’ve realised in the past year from delving into the study of detoxification, namely how our body (mainly our liver) gets rid of toxins. Ironically, by drinking these fluorescent sports drinks, we’re providing and depleting our body of energy simultaneously!
Before exploring your own sports drink, it’s important to understand a few basic things. Research has shown that a 6 to 8% sugar solution supports an optimal carbohydrate absorption rate. Furthermore, a drink that contains multiple transportable carbohydrates, such as glucose and fructose, is better for performance than a single transportable carbohydrate. This is because glucose and fructose use different transporters in the gut, thus increasing carbohydrate oxidation rates. Generally, sports drinks also contain electrolytes (mainly sodium but also potassium, magnesium and calcium) to replenish what we lose through sweat. Taking all this into account, it’s easy to make your own sports drink. I became more aware of this because my mentor, Ian Craig, loves this topic and has shared case studies of successfully implementing DIY sports drinks in his practice. Since then, I’ve also been experimenting with his ideas, which I share below with my own inputs.
The base ingredients of sports drinks are sugar for energy, water for hydration, and electrolytes for maintaining the body’s electrolyte balance. But I like to turn this base into a more nourishing drink. You can do this by adding several ‘functional ingredients’: ingredients that have extra health-promoting benefits.
An easy DIY sports drink is made by simply diluting your athlete’s favourite fruit juice – a great option as they get an extra boost of natural antioxidants. Grape and apple juice work well, but encourage them to experiment with other options they find more palatable. Beetroot juice is also an excellent choice because they get the extra benefit of the increased nitric oxide levels that promote greater vasodilation and improve blood oxygenation. Athletes only need to check the sugar content on the label and dilute the juice with water to obtain a 6-8% (60-80g per litre) solution. For example, if the fruit juice contains 14g of sugar in 100ml, this equates to 140g of sugar per litre. So, to obtain 60-80g per litre, they should dilute the fruit juice by half. Nearly all commercial sports drinks contain a glucose-to-fructose ratio of 2:1, while most fruit juices are closer to 1:1, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem as most athletes can tolerate it… it’s a case of experimenting. For electrolytes, athletes can add their own electrolyte solution or a good old pinch of rock or sea salt for a more homemade solution.
Another option is coconut water. Although popularised as ‘Nature’s sports drink’, its high potassium content means it’s not the ideal replacement for a typical sports drink. Our sweat consists mainly of water and sodium, so coconut water does not adequately replace sodium losses during exercise. Coconut water also contains a slightly lower sugar solution (~5% sugar). It’s an ‘okay’ drink if an athlete is exercising less than an hour and drinking to thirst. But overdrinking it can be dangerous and lead to hyperkalaemia because of the excess amounts of potassium, as happened to a 42-year-old tennis player.
I suggest turning coconut water into an effective sports drink by adding a pinch of rock or sea salt and some unpasteurised honey to increase the carbohydrate content and obtain a 6-8% solution. It’s a good option to alternate with water plus electrolytes or another DIY sports drink if exercising for a longer period (> 2 hours). To make it even safer, educate your athletes to dilute the coconut water with water first to reduce the potassium and then add the electrolytes or pinch of rock or sea salt and unpasteurised honey.
A final option (and my favourite of Ian’s recipes) is to brew a litre of tea your athlete enjoys. Rooibos tea works nicely, but there is a whole world of different teas to discover. Let the tea cool, add a pinch of rock or sea salt and some unpasteurised honey (~80g of unpasteurised honey will provide 60g of sugar). This refreshing drink provides your athlete not only with energy but also the antioxidants, trace minerals, and anti-microbial components of the unpasteurised honey – a far more nourishing sports drink than most commercial options, in my opinion.
Ihalainen JK et al (2014). Effects of carbohydrate ingestion on acute leukocyte, cortisol, and interleukin-6 response in high-intensity long-distance running. J Strength Cond Res. 28(10):2786-92.
Bermon S (2017). Consensus Statement Immunonutrition and Exercise. Exerc Immunol Rev. 23:8-50.
Jeukendrup A (2014). A Step Towards Personalized Sports Nutrition: Carbohydrate Intake during Exercise. Sports Med. 44(Suppl 1):25-33.
Smith J (1992). A Look at the Components and Effectiveness of Sports Drinks. J Athl Train. 27(2):173-176
Dominguez R et al (2017). Effects of Beetroot Juice Supplementation on Cardiorespiratory Endurance Athletes. A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 9(1):43.
Hakimian J et al (2014). Death by Coconut. Circulation: Arrythmia and Electrophysiology. 7(1):180-181.