After a tough workout at the gym, many people reach for a sports drink. You know the ones; those technicolor fruit drinks, most often labeled with an “ade” suffix (“Powerade,” “Gatorade,” etc.) and an ingredient list long enough to make any nutrition-minded person give pause. Many more than 100 calories per 16 ounces, on average, a sports drink can certainly put a dent in the caloric maintenance of a workout session.
And while doctors and sports nutritionists recommend the drinks for endurance and pro athletes, who need the extra calories, sugars and salts, the average gym class warrior isn’t in need of anything labeled “G Series Pro 02 Perform.” That’s because research shows that athletes don’t deplete their electrolyte and glycogen stores for more than an hour of intensive training.
In this scenario, homemade, all-natural versions of commercial sport drinks can be a good option.
Bananas have always been a popular food with athletes, thanks to their calorie-dense, portable nature and abundance of potassium — an electrolyte lost during intensive sweating sessions.
But researchers from the Appalachian State University’s Human Performance Lab recently found that endurance cyclists performed just as well when they consumed bananas as they did when they drank a sports drink.
What’s more, the banana offered other, long-term benefits not available from a sugary sports drink: antioxidants, fiber and vitamin B.
The study was funded by Dole, a fruit company that sells bananas, but it was also published in the peer-reviewed journal, PLoS ONE.
Sports drinks are meant to give you a mid-workout boost, and they’re also intended to help with recovery. But recent research found that low fat chocolate milk — yes, the plain old, dessert-like dairy drink — works better than the neon stuff.
According to a Mayo Clinic review of several high-quality studies, that’s because low fat milk has all three components required for proper sports recovery: carbohydrates, in the form of lactose; the electrolytes potassium and sodium; and protein, from casein and whey.
Coconut water is sometimes touted as “nature’s sports drink” — and while it’s true that the drink is full of the electrolyte potassium and is lower in calories than most sports drinks, that moniker is a bit of hyperbole.
Athletes need potassium, but they also need sodium, which isn’t in sufficient enough quantities in commercial coconut water. Explains Anahad O’Connor at the New York Times’ Well Blog:
An 8.5 ounce serving of Vita Coco 100% Pure Coconut Water, for example, contains 30 milligrams of sodium and 15 grams of carbohydrates. An eight-ounce serving of Gatorade Pro 02 Perform is equal in carbs (14 grams) but has more sodium (200 milligrams).
But for moderate activity or gym sessions under an hour, where replacing water is the primary concern over replacing electrolytes and sugars, the low-cal, all natural beverage is a better bet.
In addition to sports drinks, many companies now offer sports gels or “chews” — a solid, no less colorful gelatin confection that delivers sugars, electrolytes and calories.
But in a study of trained cyclists, raisins — an all-natural and far cheaper option — performed justas well to help athletes sustain their energy and performance when eaten as a pre-training snack.
Elizabeth Applegate recommends trying out other kinds of dried fruit too — figs and pears are particularly great because of their high carbohydrate content, she said.
“Liquid really makes the most sense during the workout. Blood flow goes to the muscles, so digestion is slower. The easiest thing to digest is a liquid,” says Barbara Lewin, RD, LD, a sports nutritionist who works with professional and Olympic athletes, as well as “regular” gym-goers. Lewin shared her go-to mix for a healthful, natural alternative sports drink.
Natural Sports Drink Recipe:
3.5 cups water
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
An eight-ounce serving provides 50 calories and 110 mg sodium, according to Lewin.
It might seem surprising — and certainly messy! — but UC Davis’ Elizabeth Applegate explains that cooked rice, especially squirted with a bit of honey, makes a good energy-delivering, restorative snack for endurance athletes.
“Of course, this isn’t appropriate for runners,” she told The Huffington Post, recommending the mix for cyclers.