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Quick, Easy, and Cheap Sports Drink

2001 Jim Fiore, all rights reserved

(A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in SpliTimes issue 15/4, April, 2001)

Every seasoned runner knows the importance of staying hydrated. For long runs of an hour or more, studies have shown that your performance may be improved if you also consume carbohydrates. This is particularly important in endurance competitions such as marathons and triathlons. Instead of water, you're better off using a sports drink such as Gatorade, Powerade, and the like. In this article we'll take an overview of what goes into the typical sports drink and how to make your own for just pennies per serving.

Sports drinks tend to have the optimal carbohydrate concentration of around 6 to 8 percent, or about 55 to 70 calories per 8 ounce serving. The type of carbohydrate used varies considerably between brands. The most popular appear to be glucose (highest glycemic index, and therefore very quickly absorbed), sucrose (table sugar, middle glycemic index), and fructose (fruit sugar, lower glycemic index). Gatorade for example, uses a combination of glucose and sucrose, while Cytomax includes glucose, fructose, and maltodextrin (yet another type of carbohydrate). Because you want to quickly absorb these carbs during exercise, sports drinks generally do not contain protein or fat which would slow the process.

Sports drinks also supply a modest amount of salt (sodium) to help balance the electrolytes lost from sweat, speed absorption, and keep your thirst up. The sodium content is typically 50 to 150 milligrams per serving. Some drinks also contain nutrients such as vitamin C. None of the unbiased sources I located indicated that such nutrients boosted performance during exercise. They seem to be more of a marketing gimmick.

Probably the biggest variable for most people is taste. There are a number of products out there, and many are available in a variety of flavors. The other obvious item is cost. While probably no one will wind up in the poor house from buying sports drinks, folks who log a lot of miles can really burn through the stuff. Is there another option?

First, soda does not compare favorably to a sports drink. Besides being comparably priced, soda usually is around a 12 percent carbo solution. Although you might think "more is better", in this case the higher concentration lowers the absorption rate. Also, the sodium content varies all over the place. Fruit juices such as orange and grapefruit also tend to have a higher than optimal carbo concentration (again, around 11 or 12 percent). The sodium content is normally very low, although they usually pack a decent amount of potassium. Fruit juice doesn't have a long shelf life compared to a sports drink, and again, they're not cheap. A few years ago I experimented with diluting orange and grapefruit juices with an equal amount of water. It worked reasonably well, but the taste is best described as "odd".

After much research and noodling around, I believe that I have come up with a very inexpensive and easy to make "home brew" sports drink. It is based on a recipe that I found on www.anaerobic.net. One of the nice parts is that you get to "tweak" it to your own taste.

I'd rather not have jugs of sports drink hogging up my refrigerator so I make this on an as-needed basis for a standard 20 ounce sports bottle. To the bottle, add 3 level tablespoons of table sugar and 1/8 teaspoon of salt (about 2 healthy pinches). This is the base, and will produce a 6 percent carbohydrate solution with about 100 milligrams of sodium per serving (very similar to Gatorade). To this, add your flavoring. This is where you get to be creative. Here are a couple of the things that I have tried: 1/3 packet of unsweetened Kool-Aid, Wyler's, or similar drink powder, or a couple of healthy squeezes of lemon juice (I'm lazy so I use Real Lemon in the squeeze bottle). For the truly crazed, try my special concoction. I call it "JimAde" (pretty inventive, huh?). The flavoring consists of one tablespoon of cocoa powder with a dash of vanilla extract. Cocoa powder adds a few more grams of carbs and negligible amounts of fat and protein, so you'll get closer to a 7 percent solution, about halfway between Gatorade and Powerade. Cocoa powder also adds about 10 milligrams of caffeine for the whole bottle, or about 1/10 of what you'd get in one cup of coffee. Once you've dumped in all of the dry ingredients, fill the bottle halfway with water and shake it up to mix it all together (particularly important if you go the cocoa route). Top off the bottle with water and you're ready to go. The cocoa version really needs to be cold to be palatable (at least for me).

I think that you'll find this to be as effective as any sports drink, far less expensive, and certainly more personalized. If you like it or wish to share your favorite flavoring variation, please feel free to drop me an e-mail. Happy swilling!

A small update...

Some folks have asked about the addition of protein to this drink. Normally, large amounts of protein will delay gastric emptying, and thus, are not advisable. Some research indicates that a modest addition of protein can speed the uptake of glycogen without slowing passage through the stomach. Specifically, a ratio of four grams of carbohydrate to one gram of protein seems to do the trick. This is the essence behind certain workout drinks like Endurox and Accelerade. If you'd like to experiment with this technique, it is very simple to modify the JimAde recipe, above. There are many whey-based protein powders on the market. These are available in an unflavored, unsweetened version (sometimes called "natural flavor"). To get the 4:1 ratio, simply add one-half scoop of whey protein isolate to the 20 oz. JimAde recipe. That's it. I've used it several times and I like it. Protein supplements are not cheap, though. Normal JimAde costs about 6 cents per 20 oz. serving. Adding a protein supplement will increase the cost to around 30 to 40 cents per serving (still a lot cheaper than commercial alternatives, though). A final note of caution: Do NOT leave any protein-based drink "hanging around" for more than about 30 minutes, even if it's refrigerated. It makes a nice medium in which airborne bacteria can grow and multiply. This is a fairly standard precaution that comes from most protein supplement suppliers.

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