My friend Matt recently completed the Iron Man in New York City, and I am proud to say he was a fantastic protégé when it came to his nutrition. He eliminated booze and processed foods from his diet during training, and I helped him concoct a sports drink he has since termed “Estherade” to fuel him during his thirteen hour event.
Sports drinks can be a helpful way to prevent dehydration and depletion of the body’s carbohydrate reserves during endurance events. But, not all sports drinks are created equal. High fructose corn syrup and artificial colors are commonly found among many commercial sports drinks and can adversely affect your health. So let’s do some detective work and find out how to make your sports drink work for you.
Electrolytes are ions (and essential minerals in some cases) that affect metabolic processes in your body, including the movement of nutrients into your cells and the removal of cellular waste products. Electrolytes also help regulate the acid-base balance in your body crucial for normal cellular function. When you sweat, you lose numerous electrolytes, including calcium, magnesium, sodium, chloride, and potassium, among others. So if you’re sweating up a storm during your workouts, you will need to replenish those precious electrolytes to avoid severe dehydration.
Effects of Dehydration
Your body sweats during exercise to help keep your core temperature constant. But, the body does this at a cost, using the currency of electrolytes to pay the price of fluid and electrolyte losses. Losing as little as two percent of your body weight as sweat will impair exercise performance. A four percent body weight loss as sweat significantly reduces your ability to perform muscular work. Sweat related body weight losses of five to seven percent would cause heat exhaustion and hallucinations (1). Fluids to the rescue!
Carbohydrate depletion—the depletion of your muscle and liver glycogen reserves—is another important factor to take into account when you are training for endurance activities. Glucose is stored in your liver and muscle tissue as glycogen. During prolonged exercise, your body releases hormones that convert glycogen to glucose so your body maintains blood glucose levels. Assuming your body relies on carbohydrates as fuel during exercise, you can maintain a high intensity for about two hours before you’ll bonk out (2). After two hours, your body’s glycogen tank will be running pretty low, so at that point you’ll need to shove some carbohydrates down your pie hole to get through the rest of the event. (I typically recommend taking in some carbs every hour during endurance events to for this exact reason so you can stay ahead of the curve and never run the risk of hitting a wall during your event.)
Sports Drink Considerations
Water is always your best bet for events under sixty minutes, since sports drinks provide little to no benefit for low intensity exercise for short durations. Caffeine, however, can and should be consumed before exercise, because it stimulates your nervous system and can help improve your performance. In fact, research has shown that caffeine can increase exercise ventilation and lung function at all workloads in competitive endurance athletes (3). And, a better workout means you’ll burn more fat to boot! High-fructose corn syrup, which is commonly found in sports drinks, should be avoided at all costs due to its ability to raise triglycerides and insulin levels, increasing your risk of a heart attack. I can’t think of a worse time to consume processed liquids. So be good to your body good and make your own sports drink:
1 cup coconut water
½ cup pomegranate juice
½ cup water
1/8 teaspoon organic sea salt
1000mg carnitine tartrate
Coconut water is rich in antioxidants, electrolytes, and trace minerals to improve hydration, muscle recovery and prevent cramping. Try it while training for your next endurance event; you should be very happy with how good you’ll feel during and after your exercise sessions!
1. Rehrer, NJ. The maintenance of fluid balance during exercise. Int J Sports Med. 1994 Apr; 15(3):122-125.
2. Robergs, RA, Roberts, SO. Nutrition and exercise. Fundamental Principles of Exercise Physiology. 2000; Boston: McGraw-Hill. P. 231.
3. Chapman, RF, Mickleborough, TD. The effects of caffeine on ventilation and pulmonary function during exercise; an often overlooked response. Physician and Sports Medicine. 2009 Dec; 37(4):97-103.