Sports and recovery drinks, bars, and supplements are a multibillion-dollar business.
But that profitable empire rests on sandy foundations, built largely on pseudoscientific hype.
Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade promise to aid performance and muscle recovery.
Some of these products may offer some of both benefits — although the evidence is thin, and many are fairly costly.
Before we examine the evidence about wholly natural alternatives, let's review the two key factors – inflammation and dehydration — behind impaired performance and post-exercise aches.
Inflammation and dehydration: A deleterious duo
Inflammation hampers performance, promotes muscle aches, and impairs muscle recovery.
One anti-inflammatory supplement that can aid exercise recovery — by reducing muscle damage and aches — is curcumin, extracted from turmeric root. For our report on a recent clinical trial, see Curcumin Aided Exercise & Eased Muscle Pain.
And being well-hydrated helps to both dampen inflammation and reduce muscle soreness.
Hydration also helps regulate your body temperature, lubricates your joints, and helps prevent excessive post-exercise muscle aches.
Dehydration can hit quickly — and unnoticed — when you’re focusing, sweating, and working your muscles hard.
Signs of mild to moderate dehydration include:
• Dry mouth
• Lack of sweat
• Muscle cramps
• Lightheaded feeling
• Hard or fast heartbeat
So, what’s the best way to stay well-hydrated and prevent post-workout muscle soreness?
The evidence suggests that certain natural foods and drinks work as well or better than typical sports drinks.
North Carolina study pitted bananas against simulated sports drinks
The newest study comes from researchers at Appalachian State University.
They recruited 20 men and women who were regular cyclists and asked them to ride for about 40 miles after an overnight fast — a regimen that was repeated four times, with two weeks between each ride (Nieman DC et al. 2018).
Prior to each 40-mile ride, cyclists were asked to reduce their normal cycling routine for three days, as though they were preparing for race, and to observe a moderate-carbohydrate diet that was low in fat.
The volunteers were divided into three groups:
*Note: About 95% of yellow bananas sold in the U.S. are Cavendish, which is under dire threat from the banana wilt fungus.
During each ride, the riders consumed 0.2 grams of carbohydrates — in the form of either banana or sugar water — per kg of body weight, every 15 minutes.
Blood samples were collected before each ride, several times during each ride, and after each ride.
The results showed that standard, Cavendish-type bananas worked just as well as the simulated sports drink to give the athletes energy during exercise — and did more to facilitate muscle pain-free recovery.
And, unlike the simulated sports drink, metabolites (digestive breakdown products) of the Cavendish bananas mimicked the anti-inflammatory effects of ibuprofen without its adverse effects, helping reduce muscle pain and swelling while boosting certain immune-system functions.
As lead author Dr. David Nieman said, “Consuming bananas with water during exercise has several advantages for athletes and fitness enthusiasts above those linked to regular sports drinks, including a stronger anti-inflammatory effect, better nutrition and improved metabolic recovery … This makes bananas close to the perfect athletic food.”
And he added this key point: “Ibuprofen is the number one drug taken by athletes to combat inflammation ... [but] ... it can cause intestinal cell damage and, in some studies, was found to increase inflammation in athletes. Now, athletes know there is a natural alternative — bananas and water.”
The lighter, healthier sports drink? Coconut water
Coconut water is the clear, slightly sweet liquid from young, green coconuts, and it's now widely available in bottles and cans.
An Indiana University analysis published in 2012 suggests that — at least for moderate-intensity exercise — coconut water may be a better alternative to sports drinks.
The results showed that coconut water has five times the potassium of Powerade and Gatorade.
And, compared with those sports drinks, coconut water had only about half as much sugar and only about two-thirds the sodium.
Coconut water’s lower sodium content may not be quite enough for people who sweat profusely during vigorous, sustained exercise — but it would be easy to make up the difference with salt tablets or a just a few bites of a salted whole-food snack, such as salted nuts.
The analysis was led by organic chemistry professor Chhandashri Bhattacharya, Ph.D., and she had this to say:
“Coconut water is a natural drink that has everything your average sports drink has and more. It has five times more potassium than Gatorade or Powerade. Whenever you get cramps in your muscles, potassium will help you to get rid of the cramps. It’s a healthy drink that replenishes the nutrients that your body has lost during a moderate workout.” (Bhattacharya C 2012)
The unexpected sports drink – chocolate milk
In studies published over the past several years, two separate research teams compared the effects of three drinks on trained athletes:
In both trials, the endurance athletes performed and recovered better with chocolate milk (Karp JR et al. 2006; Stager JM et al. 2014).
Why would chocolate milk work better than commercial sports drinks?
According to Joel Stager, PhD, lead researcher at Indiana University: “Chocolate milk is an ideal recovery drink. It’s a ‘real food,’ has the right carb-to-protein ratio athletes need, and it’s less expensive than many alternatives.”
Scientists from Central Washington University who reviewed the evidence ratified Stager’s statement: “Low-fat chocolate milk consists of a 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio (similar to many commercial recovery beverages) and provides fluids and sodium to aid in post-workout recovery.” (Pritchett K et al. 2012)
As the Central Washington team said, “Consuming chocolate milk … immediately after exercise and again at 2 hours post-exercise appears to be optimal for exercise recovery and may attenuate indices of muscle damage.”
Better yet, a small clinical trial found that men who ate a 3.5 oz bar of dark chocolate before a vigorous, 2.5-hour bout of stationary cycling had lower levels of a marker for oxidative damage, and maintained steadier blood sugar levels — see Dark Chocolate Deterred Exercise-Induced Damage.
Of course, chocolate milk typically contains lots of added sugar.
But you can make your own low-sugar, high-antioxidant alternative by mixing raw, non-alkali (non-Dutched) cocoa into milk — something that’s easier to do when the milk is warm. You can then chill it before putting it into a thermos for use during and after your exercise routine.
Homemade chocolate milk with no added sugar will still be mildly sweet, because milk contains substantial sugar in the form of lactose — and those carbs likely benefit performance and recovery.
Key to the “right” level of hydration? Drink when you’re thirsty
Most evidence suggests that plain water is fine for staying hydrated when you’re exercising vigorously for less than one hour.
However, it’s important to avoid overdoing water intake.
Hyponatremia, also called “water intoxication,” is a potentially dangerous, occasionally deadly condition that occurs when the body’s sodium levels drop too low.
Sodium helps balance the fluids in and around your cells, and drinking too much water pushes liquid from your blood to your cells, causing them to swell.
The primary cause of water intoxication is drinking unsalted water well beyond what the body needs and can get rid of in either urine or sweat.
Low-level water intoxication often has no symptoms. In more serious cases, people experience headache, vomiting, seizures, and confusion caused by swelling of the brain. In very serious cases, water intoxication can lead to death.
Water intoxication often happens because exercisers believe that, to avoid dehydration, they should drink well before getting thirsty.
One good way to avoid over-hydration is to listen to your sense of thirst, which will also help you avoid dehydration.
And one key advantage of a salty drink is that it will help prevent hyponatremia, even if you overconsume it.