Sports drinks have become a staple not only for elite athletes but for the active set who likes to get after it. They’re a standard pick-up at your local convenience store or supermarket, whether you’re training for a marathon, taking a hike, or just hydrating after a late night out. But not all sports drinks are created equal—and there’s actually a specific time and place to use them for optimal health and hydration.
Intended for sports and activities in which you sweat out electrolytes and burn off energy, sports drinks, in general, help recoup this energy through carbohydrates, sugar, and a specific amount of electrolytes—mainly sodium, potassium, magnesium, and chloride. A combination of both carbs and electrolytes during intense exercise or in extreme heat can help combat dehydration, replete glycogen stores, and delay fatigue.
Keep in mind that hydration and electrolyte needs are highly variable based on the individual. Genetics plays a role in sweat rate, but so does activity level, intensity, duration, and the environment. To find out true hydration needs, consult a sports dietitian to conduct a sweat test to gauge individual sweat rate as well as sweat sodium concentration. Some of us are saltier sweaters.
What To Look for in a Sports Drink
Electrolytes: When you work out and sweat, you not only lose fluids but electrolytes as well. The average athlete loses 1 to 3 liters of sweat per hour. The main electrolytes lost in sweat are sodium and chloride with potassium, magnesium, and calcium present in lower amounts. Depending on the intensity, duration, and environment (e.g. season, humidity) of your workout as well as your individual sweat rate, there are various amounts of electrolytes needed. The good news is there are lots of options on the market from low levels of electrolytes to highly concentrated electrolyte mixes. The choice is based on your individual needs.
Carbohydrates (Calories/Energy): The American College of Sports Medicine recommends individuals partaking in vigorous exercise (one hour or longer) consider drinking carbohydrate-based sports beverages, especially if they’re sweating heavily. The choice, again, depends on your activity level, caloric expenditure, and energy needs for the workout. If your workout is an hour or less, then you probably don’t need much carbohydrates and can stick to electrolyte formulas. However, if you are exercising for over an hour—like for a marathon—you’ll want to choose a drink with higher amounts of carbohydrates to fuel your workout.
Make Your Own Sports Drink
You don’t always have to head to the store. This easy and effective DIY sports drink makes about 9 cups:
- 8 cups fresh cold water
- 2 tablespoons honey or agave
- ½ teaspoon fine Himalayan pink salt or pure sea salt
- ¾ teaspoon calcium-magnesium powder
- ¾ cup freshly squeezed pineapple juice
- Juice of 2 lemons
- Juice of 2 limes
- Pour 1 cup of water into a large pot.
- Add honey, salt, calcium-magnesium powder.
- Place pot over low heat and whisk until ingredients have dissolved.
- Remove from heat and allow it to return to room temperature.
- Add fresh pressed juices to the mixture in the pot.
- Pour in the remaining 7 cups of water and blend.
- Refrigerate until desired temperature
Home elixirs not your thing? Check out the best sports drinks you can buy now.
Jordan Mazur, M.S., R.D., is the Director of Nutrition for the San Francisco 49ers.
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