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Its Time We Stop Treating Coconut Water As A Sports Drink

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Enjoy coconut water as a refreshing drink, it is a good source of potassium, magnesium and calcium, all of which will help you to meet your recommended intake of minerals. Post moderate exercise (less than 90 mins), your body doesn't need these minerals to replenish and in most cases water is all that is needed to rehydrate lost salts and minerals.

Coconut Water As A Sports Drink

There’s a lot of chatter going around the internet via celebrities, fitness fanatics, and bloggers stating that coconut water is the next best thing since gluten-free sliced bread when it comes to sports drinks and hydration.

Based on what we know from the sports nutrition and exercise physiology literature, a.k.a. as research, is it really the best thing around?

In a word, not for the reasons it’s said to be [ok, that’s 8 words]

Is Carbohydrate Replacement Necessary Post Exercise?

Carbohydrate replacement usually isn’t required unless exercise is intense enough and lasts longer than 90 minutes; even then, sodium replacement isn’t critical.

It’s true that hydration is an important part of exercise and for exercise that last between 30 and 90 minutes, water is all that’s typically needed.

Carbohydrate replacement usually isn’t required unless exercise is intense enough and lasts longer than 90 minutes; even then, sodium replacement isn’t critical.

There is a common misconception that potassium and magnesium are lost in significant amounts during prolonged intense exercise. In fact, say you have a muscle cramp in the context of exercise and people will be quick to quip “you need more potassium”. Its true electrolytes, including potassium, sodium, magnesium etc, are needed for proper muscle function but sodium is the most critical when it comes to preventing and replacing losses.

Research Links On This Topic

Sweat and sodium losses in NCAA football players: a precursor to heat cramps?

Sodium replacement during exercise in the heat prevents plasma sodium drop when fluid intake matches fluid loss

Sweat rate, salt loss and fluid intake during an intense on-ice practice in elite Canadian male junior hockey players

That white crusty ring that forms on baseball hats, visors, or clothing is essentially all sodium baby, not potassium, magnesium or calcium.

As such, there’s no need to replace potassium [or magnesium for that matter] as part of a hydration strategy even during intense exercise. As long as the diet is potassium/magnesium-rich, the body will use those minerals the way it needs to including their role in muscle contraction.

What About Carbs and Sugar?

While some argue that coconut water is a better choice because it’s lower in calories compared to common sports drinks, the difference is negligible; it only has 17 fewer calories per 1 cup / 250 ml serving; hardly worth mentioning but sounds impressive if expressed as a relative statistic, i.e. to say coconut water has 27% fewer sounds pretty good huh?

Or some will also argue that coconut water is better because it has less sugar, again 13 g for a sports drink versus 6 g for coconut water but if you truly need carbohydrate replacement for those really long periods of exercise, then the extra carbohydrate is needed. That’s why sports drinks have as much as they do. Chemically speaking, sugar is sugar, so the added sugar in a sports drink [which comes from whole foods] is the same as the stuff that’s naturally found in coconut water albeit in smaller amounts. Again, hardly a point to shout from the roof tops.

But All That Fakeness!

It’s true that sports drinks are a mix of things that many may feel are not in line with their personal philosophy on food, eating and living. Things like artificial colours, flavours and additives such as brominated vegetable oil may not click for some but that’s a different argument and that’s the argument that should be made when pitting coconut water against a product like Gatorade. To do otherwise goes off point; to argue that coconut water is better because it has less calories, sugar, carbs, and more calcium, potassium and magnesium suggests a lack of understanding of exercise physiology and sport nutrition. It also misrepresents the role of those nutrients in exercise.

Enjoy coconut water for what it is; a refreshing drink that is indeed a good source of potassium with a decent smattering of magnesium and calcium, all of which will help you to meet your recommended intake of those minerals. If you want to use coconut water as a sports drink, then confidently do so, but not for the inflated reasons and hyperbole found on the internet.

If you are exercising at a level that warrants a sports drink and you want to avoid commercial products, consider making your own.

Basic Homemade Sport Drink Recipe

  • 1 liter of water or cooled herbal or green tea
  • ¼ teaspoon Himalayan Sea Salt
  • 60 ml or about ¼ cup of 100% fruit juice
  • 60 ml or about ¼ cup of a carbohydrate source
  • Sugar – any kind [coconut, cane, turbinado etc]
  • Honey
  • Syrup

This will provide about 55 calories, 13 g carbohydrate, 250 ml / 1 cup of water, and 110 mg of sodium per 250 ml serving.

Doug Cook
Expert

I am a Registered Dietitian & Integrative & Functional Nutritionist and former Certified Diabetes Educator with over 15 years of clinical nutrition experience. I practice a holistic and integrative approach providing science-based guidance on food and diet along with nutritional supplements where appropriate. My strength lies in my ability to explain complicated nutrition and scientific concepts in plain language which I then put into everyday practical dietary advice. I have a unique approach to nutrition counselling. I have the solid education & training of a dietitian but know that there are many points of views outside this model, and I incorporate them into my practice.

Doug Cook
Expert

I am a Registered Dietitian & Integrative & Functional Nutritionist and former Certified Diabetes Educator with over 15 years of clinical nutrition experience. I practice a holistic and integrative approach providing science-based guidance on food and diet along with nutritional supplements where appropriate. My strength lies in my ability to explain complicated nutrition and scientific concepts in plain language which I then put into everyday practical dietary advice. I have a unique approach to nutrition counselling. I have the solid education & training of a dietitian but know that there are many points of views outside this model, and I incorporate them into my practice.