Last month I found myself drenched in sweat, using all of my mental willpower to push through a 10K race (with a few choice words swirling around my head for the hill-loving course designer). While I usually forgo the hydration stations during races (I’m not much of a drinker during exercise, and never really feel the need to break up my run), this race was different.
The temperature steadily climbed into the high 80’s as the race went on, and the inclined course had me dripping with sweat, which was bringing on a headache. Every time I stopped at a station I fell back on my typical habit of avoiding sugary beverages, bypassing the neon-colored liquids filling half the cups in favor of plain old H20.
While this choice is typically a smart one (after all, liquids are a huge source of unwanted calories and sugar in the standard American diet), according to Natalie Rizzo, RD, founder of Nutrition à la Natalie, this situation turns out to be an exception to the rule.
“For any [strenuous] activity longer than 60 minutes, you’re going to want to think about a sports drink,” says Rizzo. “Gatorade — or any sports drink — was actually formulated for athletes. We think that they’re not so good for us because a lot of people drink them when their sitting at their desks or they’re not so active, and if that’s the case, yes, it's too much sugar. But sports drinks are actually good for athletes working out for longer than an hour or who are working out in extreme conditions like extreme heat.”
My rule of thumb is generally after an hour, you want to kick in with a sports drink.
When is a sports drink the right choice?
“My rule of thumb is generally after an hour [of activity], you want to kick in with a sports drink,” says Rizzo. But this rule varies based on the conditions and how much you sweat.
“If you’re exercising outdoors and are a heavy sweater (like your shirt is soaked in sweat), then reach for a sports drink for any activity lasting more than 30 minutes,” advises Rizzo. “If you are a normal sweater (you sweat, but aren’t drowning in it), then maybe wait about 45 minutes of activity before reaching for a sports drink in this extreme heat.”
And sports drinks aren’t only a smart choice for athletes: “If you work outside, like a construction worker or landscaper, and are out for hours at a time while on your feet, then you should probably incorporate a sports drink into your diet,” says Rizzo. “For that, I would suggest sipping on it throughout the day with water as well.”
Feeling dizzy, fatigued, headaches or rapid heartbeat can be signs of dehydration, which means you are probably lacking fluid and electrolytes.
There are also some physical symptoms you can be aware of that signal you may need tohydrate with something more than water.
“The white residue on skin is a sign of sodium loss. Muscle cramps often mean that you need more potassium. And feeling dizzy, fatigued, headaches or rapid heartbeat can be signs of dehydration, which means you are probably lacking fluid and electrolytes,” says Rizzo.
To prevent these symptoms from popping up in the first place, Rizzo recommends sipping a sports drink during exercise, and sipping a bit more after intense exercise. “The sports drink will hopefully prevent you from experiencing dehydration and may help hydrate you if you are dehydrated.”
What to look for on the label
“In terms of things to look out for, I would be wary of any artificial flavors or colors and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS),” says Rizzo. “Gatorade uses sugar and dextrose, while Powerade uses HFCS. Many serious and elite runners use a powder to make their own, and many endorse Skratch Labs because they use a mixture of cane sugar and dextrose as the sugar [source]. Both are more natural sugars that get into your bloodstream quickly. "
A 4-ingredient DIY Sports Drink
But an even better option is to make your own. Not only can you control the ingredients, but DIY-ing your own at-home sports drink will also save you money.
“I don’t love sports drinks; I don’t love the way that they taste,” says Rizzo, who also suffered from stomach aches when she attempted to incorporate them into her nutrition plan. “Because of that, I have a recipe for my own sports drink. There are no additives, no weird colors or flavors, and it’s really simple to make.”
Rizzo highlights the important components that go into a sports drink, and why our bodies need them to re-hydrate:
- Fluid with electrolytes: “I use coconut water because it’s got fluid, but it’s also got electrolytes,” says Rizzo. Make sure to get a brand that doesn’t have any added sugar besides the sugar that’s naturally in the coconut, she adds. “You need electrolytes in a sports drink because they are the minerals lost in sweat — mainly sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium. Essentially, these electrolytes are needed to balance the amount of water in the body and keep you hydrated. “
- Sugar: “Believe it or not, carbs, in the form of sugar, provide energy for exercise. Our body stores carbs in the muscle and liver (its called glycogen), and we use any dietary carbs and stored carbs to power us through exercise,” says Rizzo. “Those stored carbs last for about an hour, and then you need to start replacing them for continued energy. For people who are exercising for longer than an hour, they want a carb that will quickly get into their bloodstream, and that comes in the form of sugar in sports drink. Plus, the sugar helps the cells take up the fluid quicker, so it gives you energy and keeps you hydrated!”
- Salt: Runners lose an average of one gram of sodium per liter of sweat, says Rizzo. “A major component of sweat is sodium, and those that exercise in the heat may experience excessive sweating. If you’ve ever had white residue on your skin after exercise, that’s a build-up of salt. That’s why an important part of hydration is taking in some sodium as well. If you exercise indoors in a gym or even outside for only a short period of time, it might not be necessary to add sodium to your diet. But if you’re working out in the heat for an extended period of time (45 minutes+), then you might need to add a few extra shakes of salt to your next meal.”
Ready to whip up your own sports drink? Rizzo has three different recipes. Here, she shares the strawberry version, but you can also make it with orange juice or lemon, based on your taste. “I like to make them in a mason jar so that you can let it sit overnight and if you let the frozen strawberries infuse in there, it tastes really good the next morning, you can make it ahead of time if you have an early morning run or workout and it’s a lot cheaper than buying them at the store,” she says.
Homemade Strawberry Sports Drink
12 ounces of coconut water
3-4 frozen strawberries
1 teaspoon honey (or maple syrup or agave)
Pinch of salt
Combine all ingredients and stir. Infuse overnight for the best taste!
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