The Smarter, More Natural, Sports Drink


A sports drink is a beverage that’s stated purpose is to help athletes replace water, electrolytes, and energy after training or competition. However, as health-minded vegan athletes, we are often disappointed at what qualifies under this category for myriad reasons. For instance, most health-minded folks tend to avoid high fructose corn syrup as well as drinks that are glowing blue or unnatural neon colors. High fructose corn syrup is the number two ingredient (the number one is water, of course) on many so-called “sports drinks.” And check out the calories on these thirst quenchers. A 12 oz. bottle of Gatorade has 300 calories. Not the best choice after a 150-200 calorie workout at the gym. Add all of that to the unnatural colorings and weird chemicals on the ingredients label and you might want to continue your run, in the opposite direction of these alien concoctions.

And have you heard this recent claim that the dairy council is making that chocolate milk is a great sports drink? Give us a break. Not only is the number two ingredient of many brands also high fructose corn syrup (and if its not, its sugar), if you read the nutritional panel on that 2% milk carton, you will see that it is actually somewhere between 12% and 35% fat. That’s because the Dairy Council deviously uses the total volume of the milk (which after all is mostly water) rather than the actual fat percentage of the total calories. They advertise that misleading number in big font on the front of the carton. That usually does the trick and keeps people from actually looking at the nutritional panel on the side which will give you the numbers you really need to know to make informed choices.

So, what does the body really need for continuous recovery during and after exercise?

1. Water
As health-afficionados, drinking clean, filtered water has become very important. We are well aware of the toxins and bacteria that flood our water supplies. The water that we drink is a far cry from the crystal clean spring water that our ancestors used to drink. This is not only because of the pollutants, but the result—the excessive filtering and distillation until there is nothing left but pure H2O. But pure H2O is not found in nature. Water always contains minerals (and electrolytes) in its natural state. Europeans recognize this and there is a great demand for mineral water in those countries. Unfortunately, in the United States, mineral water is not always easy to come by, especially if you don’t like carbonation in your water. This leaves us completely reliant on our food and less-than-natural versions of water that contain added electrolytes.

2. Electrolytes
Electrolytes are lost from the body due to two main culprits. First, when an athlete perspires. 1 And also when that athlete drinks plain water. Drinking plain water increases urine output and tends to flush out vital electrolytes (sodium, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus and potassium) and does not allow the body to hold on to the fluid either. This double whammy to the electrolyte stores of the body (sweating and drinking plain water) can be very debilitating, causing an athlete to feel completely “wiped out” after a workout. Replacing electrolytes in the fluid that an athlete drinks reduces urine output, which halts this process and allows the body to maintain an electrolyte balance as well as proper hydration. 2 Many scientists studying this problem recommend large doses of sodium (as much as 50-60 mmol/l) as well as potassium to replace lost electrolytes.3 This is why the most knowledgeable coaches have been adding salt to the water of athletes for years. Magnesium is another important electrolyte that scientists have discovered is excreted by the body in urine in larger than normal amounts on days of high-intensity exercise. Under normal conditions it takes the body about 2 hours to recover a normal magnesium level in the bloodstream and a full day to stop urinary losses after exercise.4 All of the above are why recently electrolyte- rich coconut water has become desirable for athletes.

3. Glycogen
(Carbs are your friend)

Ask any top endurance athlete and they will tell you all about the importance of providing yourself with carbohydrates before and after exercise, but bodybuilders are not always aware of the need for carbs. The focus tends to stay on nothing but protein for many muscle builders. This is a shame because understanding recovery is more than half the battle, and carbs help you maintain energy so that you can continue on to the next workout. In case you didn’t know, the term carbohydrate is used in biochemistry as a synonym of “saccharide” (which comes from the Greek word for “sugar”). You may have heard in bodybuilding circles that muscles are supplied fuel from glycogen stores. But did you know that glycogen is itself a complex carbohydrate within the body? Glycogen is a storage polysaccharide (as in “many saccharide molecules”).5 So how do you fuel up your glycogen stores? The simple answer is that you consume glucose from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are made by the green leaves of plants as a result of photosynthesis. They produce a simple sugar such as glucose. The simple sugar is then converted into other molecules such as starch, fats, proteins, enzymes, and all of the othermolecules in living plants. When you eat a carbohydrate, the body utilizes the glucose in it for energy.5 And so, you see, carbohydrates are your friend, and as an athlete, you need a lot of them in order to perform without having the sensation of “hitting a wall” after a good workout.

The Vegan Health & Fitness (VHF) Sports Drink Recipe is to combine:

  • Water (1/2 of your container)
  • A dash of salt (more if you sweat a lot)
  • Coconut water (1/4 of your container)
    - for electrolytes: potassium, magnesium and sodium, although not enough sodium to compensate for a good sweat session, so you will need a little more
  • Fresh fruit juice (1/4 of your container) - orange juice = 21 grams of carbs per
    cup, of which 17 grams are sugar)
  • BONUS:
    If you don't like grabbing a salt shaker for your sodium requirements, try increasing your consumption of these natural sources of sodium (try adding their juice to your sports drink or eat some on a salad after a workout):

  • Swiss chard 213 mg/cup (potassium 379 mg/cup)
  • Beets 106 mg / cup (potassium is 325)
  • Carrots 88 mg/cup (potassium 410)
  • Celery 81 mg/cup (potassium 263 mg/cup
  • Note that in nature, sodium and potassium are always perfectly balanced, with a ratio of about 1:3 sodium to potassium. This is what you should shoot for in your sports drink too. Also note: specific electrolyte requirements vary widely from person to person based on a host of factors. The only way to know exactly what is going on with your electrolytes is to get tested in a lab repeatedly under different conditions. If you can't afford that, try letting mother nature provide you with what you
    may be lacking through the VHF sports drink recipe above. It has worked wonders for our staff and it may be just the thing for you too!

    1. Sawka, Michael N., et al. "American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Exercise and fluid replacement." Medicine and science in sports and exercise 39.2 (2007): 377-390.
    2. Maughan, R. J., and S. M. Shirreffs. "Rehydration and recovery after exercise." Science & sports 19.5 (2004): 234-238.
    3. Maughan, R. J., J. B. Leiper, and S. M. Shirreffs. "Factors influencing the restoration of fluid and electrolyte balance after exercise in the heat." British journal of sports medicine 31.3 (1997): 175-182.
    4. Deuster, PATRICIA A., et al. "Magnesium homeostasis during high-intensity anaerobic exercise in men." Journal of Applied Physiology 62.2 (1987): 545-550.


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here