Sports drinks have become part of the fabric of athletics. It’s hard to imagine LeBron James sitting on the bench after hitting a late-game, go-ahead jumper without him holding a cup of Gatorade in his hand. Even those not paid to endorse the products rarely hit the gym or the playing field without some brightly-colored beverage in tow. It’s no wonder that in 2012 sales of sports drinks totaled in excess of $4 billion.
Now I like Gatorade, Powerade and some of the powdered and tablet water enhancers (GU, Nuun). They’re convenient, often tasty, and serve hydration needs. But given that most are little more than glorified sugar water with a few electrolytes added to the mix, they seemed pricey for what they deliver. Plus, I can’t pronounce many of the additives and flavorings, which gives me pause to whether my body should be digesting it. Lately I’ve been wondering if I can do better myself. It would certainly be cheaper and most likely healthier.
So I’ve been experimenting with my own sports drink concoctions. Nothing fancy, just the basics needed to replenish the fluids and electrolytes lost during extended activity; like a tennis match. I haven’t perfected a particular brew yet, but here’s the template I’ve been using:
Base: This begins and ends with water. Any sports drink should be predominantly water because that’s what the body is sweating out. Many research studies have shown that light exercise performed for under an hour requires nothing more than water to satisfy an athlete’s fluid needs. If I make a quart of a sports drink, about ¾ will be plain H2O.
Sugar: Some do-it-yourself sports drink recipes suggest plain sugar, but I try to avoid using it if I can. My go-to source at the moment is raw honey. It’s full of enzymes, antioxidants, and phytonutrients that are lost in processed honey and don’t exist in plain sugar. And it literally lasts forever. If I need a more flavorless and less caloric sweetener, I’ve been using liquid stevia. It’s an all-natural plant extract and far better for you than chemical sweeteners such as sucralose.
Fruit Juice: Many health experts admonish fruit juices as being essentially liquid candy. And many of them are just that. However, drinking the freshly squeezed or pressed kinds in moderation can be quite beneficial, especially when replenishing the body. That means avoiding the pasteurized stuff that can sit on shelves for months without spoiling. When using some of the sweeter juices, such as fresh orange juice, skip the sweetener since it has enough natural sugar, even when significantly watered down. But when using some of the more bitter varieties, such as lemon juice, or apple cider vinegar, raw honey or stevia is probably needed. If you want to keep calories low, and like convenience, Crystal Light Pure, which is made with stevia, can be a suitable substitute for juice.
Electrolytes: Once match time exceeds an hour, especially on warm days, is when sugar and electrolyte depletion usually takes place. The common ones present in most sports drinks are sodium and potassium with bicarbonate prevalent in many water enhancer tablets. Depending on the size of your drink, a pinch of sea salt works well for sodium, and does little to affect the overall flavoring. Orange and lemon juice are good sources of potassium, as well as vitamin C.
Proteins and amino acids: While not necessary, some studies have shown that ingesting protein or amino acids during strenuous activity can help recovery. Whey protein is the most widely used as it’s absorbed quickest by the body. Be careful with the amount used as it can affect taste and consistency. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and in powder form dissolve more easily. However, as the name suggests, amino acids taste bitter and will require a higher concentration of juice or sweetener.
Energizers: This is purely optional, but I have found—and research supports—that supplementing with stimulants can boost performance. I’m not suggesting a shot of espresso on the changeovers. But mild caffeine intake—as long as you continually hydrate—can get a player through those dragging moments of a tough match. Green tea extract works well and also contains polyphenols, power antioxidants. As does mate tea, which is also suppose to help the body use carbohydrates more efficiently. Those who don’t like the taste of teas can opt for straight caffeine. Again, be mindful not to overdo the dosage.
After some trial and plenty of error, this is (so far) my favorite recipe. The measurements can be adjusted to taste:
3.5 cups water
2 tablespoons raw honey (dissolved in ½ cup of heated water)
¼ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
50 drops of green tea extract
Shake and refrigerate.
Got any suggestions of your own? Drop it in the comments section.