by Ian Craig
in Blogs

Within the wonderful world of sports, a question that I’m asked all the time is which sports drink brand to use. My response usually has a long delay in it, simply because here in South Africa we’re not exactly spoiled for choice. If I lived in the UK or US, for example, I would be able to rhyme off a few very progressive brands. But here in S Africa, bar one or two reasonable products, we haven’t really moved on from the brightly coloured, heavily flavoured and sweetened (often with sweeteners even though the product is mostly sugar) sickly products, that require a lot of energy for the liver to metabolise and also have a high likelihood of irritating the stomach or intestines. Considering that the majority of endurance athletes, especially runners, suffer from some sort of gastrointestinal issue during competition and training, this can be a problem.

So, the solution: do it yourself! By taking responsibility for your own drinks, you can swing the focus around from simply being about the quantity of sugar in the drink, to selecting ingredients that provide a health benefit - what we term in the nutrition world as being ‘functional’. 

When we look at what a sports drink is, it’s important to recognise the years of science behind these commercial drinks. They are essentially sugar for energy, water for hydration and salt for electrolytes. The rest (colours, flavours, additives) are simply a dressing to try and ‘hook’ you onto their products. Science has demonstrated that a 6 to 8 per cent sugar solution (60 to 80 grams per litre of fluid) is best for endurance performance - even quite poor sports drink products are quite convincingly superior to simply drinking water or having some sort of placebo - so the solution isn’t to just take water. 

Here are a couple of the drinks that I have played with: 

Dilute fruit juice - fruit juice is give or take 15 per cent sugar, so the simple option is to dilute it by half. I do this with apple, grape and pomegranate with good palatability. Now, the science has supported a sugar ratio in favour of glucose over fructose, whereas in most fruit juices, the glucose:fructose ratio is close to 1:1. So, as far as science goes, it’s not ideal, but I think the palatability is important - if an athlete tolerates a dilute fruit juice in training, then it works okay for him/her. I will generally recommend a commercial powered drink for competition just to get the ratios right, but some of my clients use this dilute fruit juice in competition quite happily. I also like to add an electrolyte solution and my favourite is ‘Elete’, available in the US, UK and S Africa - there are quantity guidelines on the bottle. Additionally, 1 rounded teaspoon of glutamine powder is a favourite amino acid of mine. It supports gut health, liver health, immunity, muscular energy utilisation and also mixes well…

Iced tea - brew up a litre of green or rooibos tea, or a healthy tea of your choosing - we are looking for a tea with good antioxidant levels. Then, as it’s cooling, add in some raw honey - for the sugar-fuel requirements. About 80 grams of honey will give you around 60 grams of sugar - just the amount that science says is best. You end up with a solution that tastes delicious, but has a ton of antioxidants and immune components from the honey (as long as it is raw). 

Of course, you can make these drinks more dilute, especially when you are doing long events in which you’re also consuming solid foods. Your individual race plans are really specific to your tastes - literally, so experiment with a few things in training and you might just find that your performances sour or that these gastrointestinal issues you had before disappear. It really is worthwhile doing homemade recipes to nourish your body, even if it is just your sports drinks….

This blog was based on an old article that I’ve already published in Functional Sports Nutrition magazine and Natural Medicine magazine. Click here for the full version.