Like all seductive marketing, sports drink ads make us believe that by consuming a bottle of their neon-hued product, we too may end up with gloriously defined abs … just like the fitness model holding a bottle of said product against her perfectly glistening forehead.
Unfortunately, most drinks sold as vitamin- and nutrient-infused necessities for exercise are little more than candy-colored sugar water. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoon of added sugar daily for women; yet the most-popular selling sports drink on the market offers 21 grams of sugar per 12-ounce serving; that’s 5 ¼ teaspoons of sugar right there.
Meanwhile, while we are taught that sports drinks are necessary during exercise, expert after expert denies the myth. And in fact, a comprehensive study published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ), titled “The truth about sports drinks,” concluded that sports drinks were good for endurance and elite athletes, and few others.
That said, hydrating is king, and there are some great things to drink, in addition to water, while exercising. The following healthy sports drink alternatives have been associated with improved performance and quicker recovery.
1. Coconut water
Coconut water is as good for performance and rehydrating as regular water and sports drinks, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. And it comes with wholesome nutrients instead of added sugar and artificial colors (but check labels for sulfites, which some brands contain).
2. Watermelon juice
Researchers found that people who consume watermelon juice before exercising felt less sore the next day than those who drank a pink placebo beverage. Not only that, watermelon offers innumerous health benefits. And … it tastes great. (To make watermelon juice, you can simply blend seeded chunks of fruit in the blender, straining is not required.)
Alternatives for sports drinks don’t have to be drinks themselves. Hydrating with water and using raisins instead of sport gels is a terrific way to go. A study on sport gels found that when examining trained cyclists, snacking on raisins before workouts worked just as well to help athletes sustain their energy and performance.
In the same vein as raisins, bananas – a favorite of runners and gym aficionados everywhere – when combined with sufficient hydration, are just as effective for sustaining the performances and electrolyte balances of hard-working athletes.
5. Chocolate Milk
If you’re hearing this for the first time, you may be thinking, “chocolate milk as a healthy sports drink? Has this writer lost her marbles?” I know it sounds like a stretch, but here’s the deal: sports drinks are intended to help with both the work out and recovery. For recovery, the optimal mix is the right balance of carbohydrates and protein. Like in … chocolate milk. With its perfect carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, as well as vitamin D, calcium, vitamin A and iron, it's the "ideal post-workout recovery drink," according to a University of Texas study. Yes, there is added sugar, but there are also wholesome nutrients sorely missing in standard sports drinks. For best results, aim for one with natural ingredients.
If you are really attached to sports drinks, you can skip the synthetic versions and make your own wholesome ones. Sports nutritionist, Barbara Lewin, RD, LD, shares this recipe for a healthy homemade sports drink that has a mere 50 calories for an eight-ounce serving:
- 3.5 cups water
- ¼ cup organic orange juice
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Mix and drink accordingly; no refined sugar or day-glo colorants required.