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. At about 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.
For those of us who maybe sweat it out over a three mile run or 45-minute spin class (certainly nothing to sniff at, but not exactly record breaking either), lower-sugar and all-natural alternatives to the standard variety of sports drinks can have the "same benefits, but also health benefits for the long term," explains Elizabeth Applegate, Director of Sports Nutrition and a senior lecturer in nutrition at University of California, Davis in an interview with HuffPost Healthy Living. "Most of us who exercise are doing it to improve our health and to look better, so we want to think about what makes sense with that in mind."
For a lighter workout, you could easily stick to plain water. But if what you're doing requires a bit of a pick-me-up, there are options beyond sports drinks. Recent studies have shown that some solid foods -- such as bananas and raisins -- may be just as effective for sustaining the performances and electrolyte balances of hard-working athletes. And with extra benefits like fiber, vitamins and antioxidants, they may fit into a complete nutrition and fitness plan better than a Gatorade. But some sports nutritionists maintain that liquid pick-me-ups are the way to go. "The thing that works best is a drink," Barbara Lewin, RD, LD, a sports nutritionist who works with professional and Olympic athletes, tells HuffPost. That's because blood flow to the stomach slows during a workout, making digestion more arduous, she says.
In this scenario, homemade, all-natural versions of commercial sport drinks can be a good option. But no matter what you end up grabbing on your way to the gym, it's important to keep in mind that, when it comes to intensive or prolonged exercise, calories and carbohydrates actually support weight loss and fitness. "It's a contradiction, but you really do need the calories to perform well," says Lewin. "The calories are what’s enabling you to work out at your best. if you’re not well-fueled, you’re not going to work out as hard."
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. <br><br> But researchers from the Appalachian State University's Human Performance Lab <a href="http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0037479" target="_hplink">recently found</a> that endurance cyclists performed just as well when they consumed bananas as they did when they drank a sports drink. <br><br> What's more, the banana offered other, long-term benefits not available from a sugary sports drink: antioxidants, fiber and vitamin B. <br><br> 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. <br><br> <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sports-drinks/MY01209" target="_hplink">According to a Mayo Clinic review</a> 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. <br><br> Athletes need potassium, but they also need sodium, which isn't in sufficient enough quantities in commercial coconut water. <a href="http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/08/really-the-claim-for-better-hydration-drink-coconut-water/" target="_hplink">Explains Anahad O'Connor</a> at the New York Times' Well Blog: <br><br> <blockquote>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).</blockquote> 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. <br><br> But in <a href="http://www.runwashington.com/news/763/309/The-Athlete-s-Kitchen-Sports-Nutrition-News-from-ACSM.htm" target="_hplink">a study of trained cyclists</a>, raisins -- an all-natural and far cheaper option -- performed just as well to help athletes sustain their energy and performance when eaten as a pre-training snack. <br><br> 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. <br><br> Lewin shared her go-to mix for a healthful, natural alternative sports drink. <br><br> <strong>Natural Sports Drink Recipe</strong>: <br> 3.5 cups water <br> 1/4 cup orange juice <br> 1/4 cup maple syrup <br> 1/4 teaspoon salt <br><br> 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. <br><br> "Of course, this isn't appropriate for runners," she told The Huffington Post, recommending the mix for cyclers.
While endurance athletes need the electrolytes and carbohydrates that come from a sports drink, most often, regular gym goers do not. That's because under an hour of moderate-to-intense exercise doesn't warrant concerted replacement efforts. <br><br> Most often, when your average gym warrior goes for a sports drink, they really just need a pick-me-up. And for that, suggests Elizabeth Applegate, a low-cal drink with 100 milligrams of caffeine -- like a black iced coffee or strong tea, will work just fine. <br><br> <em> <strong>CORRECTION</strong>: An earlier version of this slide stated that caffeine should contain 100 grams, rather than milligrams. That would be a dangerous amount of caffeine. We regret the error. </em>