Walk into any North American gas station or convenience store, and you’d be forgiven for believing that we are the sportiest, healthiest, most energetic god damn population on the planet. Sports Drinks. Energy Drinks. Performance Boosters. Electrolyte drinks. “Enhanced Water” (yes, really). The non-pop (ahem, soda) beverage offering has exploded in the last 10 to 15 years, from good ol’ Gatorade and it’s Coke-owned competitor Powerade, to 16 linear feet of refrigerator case in any given 7-11. Products feature stunning flavour names like Fierce Grape, Revive, and the rather redundant Frost Glacier Freeze. Package design is reminiscent of the resultant offspring if a monster truck mated with a boy band. (Apparently this is one food market that hasn’t yet decided to target the female demo with pink packaging, extra calcium, and too few calories to survive on.)
But you’re thirsty. And you ARE an athlete – in fact you’re on your way to practice right now, and you’re trying to decide which of these wonders of the “nutraceutical” marketplace (yes, that’s a thing) are right for you?
Sports Drink. Good old sports drink. Basically the Sports Beverage category aims to provide fuel and electrolytes to replace what you’re burning/sweating. According to Pepsico, the main ingredients in Gatorade, the market leader in this category, are water, sucrose, and glucose-fructose, with salt (just garden variety NaCl), some potassium, with flavours and colours thrown in to make you believe that ‘purple’ stands for ‘glacier’. It will give you some sugar to sustain you for longer or intense or more periods of exercise, and the salt and potassium will replenish what you’re sweating. Electrolyte replacement is essential after about 30 minutes of sweaty activity, so this stuff fits the bill, but the sugar content should dispel any misconception that this is a ‘healthy’ choice. Personally, I’ve used this during bouts to keep my energy up, but cut about 50% with water. I’ve since changed my gameplan because my stomach felt gross after every bout.
Sports Drink Derivatives. Once the market became saturated, the big sports drink manufacturers decided to branch out into Pre-workout and Post-workout offerings. Gatorade now offers “Prime,” a little squeezy-tube of alien-sounding ingredients providing carbs (sugar), salt, and B vitamins to fuel your workout. There is so far little or no valid research proving that Vitamin B has any impact on athletic performance, so save this one for an emergency, or the day you decide to pretend you’re an astronaut, eating astro-food (please send pictures!). Herbalife (marketed to the derby community as Derbalife) offers “Prepare” as a pre-workout supplement including nitric oxide, amino acids, and creatine. According to WebMD, nitric oxide causes blood vessels to open wider for improved blood flow, similar to the effect of caffeine (which it also contains, and which can be a performance enhancer). Creatine is normally taken as a post-workout supplement after intense exercise like sprinting or weightlifting to enhance muscle recovery. This option has much less sugar and fewer scary ingredients, but it still makes my spidey-sense tingle.
Enhanced Water. Undermined Water might be a better label. Mind-blowingly, even Coke, owner of the VitaminWater brand, agreed with the lawsuit heaved upon them over dubious packaging health claims made, suggesting, “that no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitaminwater was a healthy beverage.” In other words, Up yours consumer! Shame on your for believing something called vitamin water could be healthier than actual water! In short, ignore this category and its candy-store colour selection. With 27 grams of sugar, but no sodium in the bottle, tap water would be an improvement for any athlete.
Energy Drinks. My favourite whipping boy! You know the ones. Red Bull. Monster. Amp. Rockstar. And my personal favourite, the incredibly oxymoronic Diet Rockstar (in my world, rockstars have no restraint, they don’t count calories, and they don’t go on diets). These potions contain caffeine, sugar, and usually some botanicals like Taurine, ginseng and the like. Beloved by long-haul truckers, ravers, and the X-games crowd, these are pure junk, and happen to taste like a mix of cleaning spray and cough syrup (please read this very entertaining review of Redbull Total Zero). Instead of the standard “serving size,” the labelling for several brands actually list a recommended “maximum daily dose,” similar to what you would see on the label for Tylenol or sleeping pills! Also of note is the fact that there is 330mg of caffeine in a Grande Starbucks dark roast, and only 240mg in a can of Rockstar. If you want your buzz, get yourself a nonfat latte. By all means though, if you enjoy jitters, a complete lack of focus on the track, sugar crashes, and type 2 diabetes, proceed!
Food. Yes, real food. You can get what you need for a pre-workout and mid-workout drink from actual whole ingredients in your fridge and pantry for a tiny fraction of the cost of all that other stuff. Registered Dietician Ashley Charlebois recommends the following, incredibly simple recipe in your water bottle for practice or a bout: Half water, half OJ, pinch of salt. You get carbs, electrolytes and naturally-occurring vitamins for a few pennies. BOOM.
Failing food… I go with an electrolyte replacer. In powdered or tab format, I drop some in the water bottle before practice to keep replenishing what I’m losing during practice. Products I’ve tried include Ultima Replenisher powder, and NUUN tablets. There’s a little sticker shock with the tub of powder, but the serving size is tiny and a container lasts me at least 6 months for $40 (in other words, way way cheaper than bottled drinks or powdered Gatorade). Sugar free, it’s not providing any calories in the carbohydrate department to keep performance up over an extended period, so if practice is longer than 2 hours of intense activity, I supplement with food or juice.
Chocolate Milk. The scourge of dentists, the darling of nutritionists. It contains just the right balance of carbs, protein and fat to nourish you after a workout. I say, if you get a free pass to drink chocolate from the experts, have at ‘er!
Yours in hydration,