Why Sugar-Free Sports Drinks Are A Waste Of Money & What To Drink Instead (Hint: It’s Not Water)

fit woman drinking waterIt seems like the perfection solution, doesn’t it?

A drink that provides all the hydration and electrolytes you could need, without the devil substance that we call sugar.

I mean it wasn’t so long ago that if you wanted to re-hydrate yourself after a hardcore training session, your choice was limited to bottles of colored water which also contained more sugar than a can of Coke.

So when you hear about sugar-free sports drink, you might think this is exactly the type of innovation we’ve all been waiting for! The holy grail of sports re-hydration.

Or is it?

Before we dig deeper into why it’s not, I want to talk about water. There are some people that think plain ol’ water is (and always will be) the best option.

And that’s true… if all you’re doing is Zumba or Hot Yoga.

But when you’re sweating buckets and asking your body to push itself to the limit in insanely hot weather, water by itself is not the ideal solution.

In fact, drinking lots of water when you’ve experienced heavy sweating can lead to something called hyponatremia.

What’s Hyponatremia?

This is when the sodium levels in your blood reach dangerously low levels. How can your levels get too low?

Two ways:

  1. By sweating like crazy (something everyone that reads this site should be familiar with)
  2. Drinking too much water

You see, sodium is an electrolyte and its job is to regulate the amount of water that surrounds your cells. But when you drink shit loads of water, you dilute your sodium levels. And now the cells in your body begin to swell. If this keeps up, the problems you may face could be life threatening!

Basically, having optimal sodium levels is nothing to fool around with.

And this is why sports drinks have so much sodium in them. They’d rather play it safe, and I don’t blame them.

But sodium isn’t the only electrolyte that you lose. There are 4 others such a potassium, chloride, calcium and magnesium. As you can guess, they are called electrolytes because they help conduct electricity. And your muscles only fire & produce force when your central nervous system gives them the electrical signal to do so.

No electrical signals means no working muscles, and no working muscles means no lifty of heavy ass weights, which means you become sad, fat and depressed.

escalated-quickly

Ok maybe it’s not all quite so dramatic, but I had to illustrate a point. And while all five electrolytes are important, the two main ones athletes need to be aware of are sodium and potassium. An excessive loss in either of these can lead to nausea, muscle cramps, loss in performance and other symptoms that will have you feeling at your worst.

So hopefully all of my rambling explains why defaulting to “only water” isn’t always the ideal option.

“Ok, no problem”, you might think. “I’ll just buy a sugar-free sports drink! It’s low in sugar and it’ll keep my electrolyte levels in check!”

Yeah, about that…

The Pitfalls And Dangers Of Sugar-Free Sports Drinks

cheerleader-drinking-gatoradeWhile considering a sports-drink to replace your lost electrolytes is a start, it’s not exactly an ideal solution when it’s sugar-free. Here’s why:

First, glucose the preferred fuel source for you brain and muscles so it doesn’t make sense why you wouldn’t want to be topped up on it before your workout or competition. Also, if you’ve read any of my nutrition articles around the interwebz then you know that liquid carbohydrates absorb much faster than solid sources, which can be useful when you’re about to compete or train within the hour. The last thing you want is a chicken sandwich jumping around in your belly as you try and bench your max or squat for a new PR.

Second, any time you increase the amount of salt you take in (whether it’s through food or through an electrolyte beverage) you need to increase the amount of water and the rate of its absorption. If you don’t do this, you could end up with too much salt in your bloodstream (known as hypernatremia).

This can cause diarrhea and vomiting. Not good!

But how do we increase the rate of water absorption without suffering from from either hypo or hypernatremia?

By throwing in some glucose! (that’s sugar, in case you’re really behind on your scientific terms)

What glucose does is speed up the absorption of water when combined with electrolytes. It really is quite the combination of ingredients coming together in perfect harmony. This is why most sports drink contain sugar in the first place instead of just being sold as bottled salt water (ew!)

I know most fitness professionals like to poke fun at brands like Gatorade about their marketing tactics and ingredient labels, but trust me on this – they aren’t stupid. When formulating their products, they really have done their homework.

But do we really need that much sugar?

No. But most sugar-heavy sports drinks are created for the worst case scenario. It’s for the poor soul who got suckered into doing something like a Crossfit WOD followed by a marathon. He will most likely suffer from extreme fluid and electrolyte loss, and for him an entire bottle of anything ending in “ade” will be a lifesaver.

But for the rest of us who follow a well designed workout? We don’t need to drink the entire bottle of the stuff.

That’s IF you choose to buy a bottle. I have a better solution that I’ll talk about in a minute.

So What’s The Bottom Line Here?

Well it should be evident by now that Sugar-Free sports drinks are a complete waste of money.

Glucose + Electrolytes + Water will hydrate you faster than water alone. This is a huge benefit when you’re sweating constantly.

Here’s another important fact you should remember: if your sports drink contains fructose (the sugar from fruits) then you will NOT get the benefit of rapid absorption since fructose doesn’t use the same transporter as glucose.

There’s a big difference, so don’t get scammed.

“Glucose + Electrolytes + Water will hydrate you faster than water alone” (Tweet This)

The Ultimate Hydration Beverage

At this point you might think I’m some paid shill for a major beverage brand, and that they are lining my pockets with gold to “big up” their bottle of colourful liquids.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Instead what you get is complete and unbiased advice ;)

I will admit though that it’s tough to find a good sports drink. While you want it to have some sugar, you obviously don’t want to buy a bottle that has the same amount of glucose as a bottle of soda. That’s a recipe of a muffin top, not proper hydration.

Luckily, there happens to be a drink you can buy which is 100% natural, perfectly balanced, refreshing, has just the right amount of sugar, and has proven to cause almost zero stomach discomfort unlike most sports drinks.

Oh and it also contains all five of the essential electrolytes that I mentioned above (unlike most sports drinks which only contain 2 or 3).

Can you guess what it is?

Say hello to Coconut Water!

woman-drinking-coconut-waterIt is by far the best beverage for high performing athletes, especially since it contains up to 10 times the level of potassium compared to most sports drinks, sparing you from agonizing muscle cramps and twitches.

My clients already know about this drink, and I constantly receive emails from athletes about how much better they feel (and perform) in the intense summer heat once they made the switch to coconut water.

It’s the best kept “secret” in hydration and I urge you to try it out.

Now excuse me while I collect my cheques from BigCoco; I had to hop bandwagons because BigPharma just isn’t what it used to be*

Enjoyed this article?

Then why not be a social superhero? Share this with your friends and save them from blowing money on BS Sports Drinks!

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* That was a joke by the way. No one’s paying me shit to write this stuff. This site is completely independent… just in case you couldn’t tell.

About The Author

Coach Sahil is the founder of HTS, a National Deadlift record setter and author of a multitude of books. Click Here to learn more about him.

2 Comments

  • Bhuboy September 8, 2016 at 10:20 am

    Wow, I never knew that though water is really beneficial, there are times that it is not the best drink of choice depending on the activity you are involved with like what you have mentioned here. Thanks for this

  • Jared December 29, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    Hey what gives?
    Some person over at RunnersConnect is writing this:

    “The absorption of fluids into the body is largely dependent upon two factors: (1) the rate at which it is absorbed through the walls of the small intestine; and (2) the speed at which it is emptied from the stomach. Both of these factors are controlled by the composition of a liquid in terms of its carbohydrate (sugar), and electrolyte concentrations.

    As a general rule, the higher the carbohydrate content of your beverage, the slower the absorption rate will be. Consequently, trying to maintain proper hydration and balanced electrolyte levels during a run with sugary sports drinks is difficult. On the other hand, plain water passes through the body too quickly and without providing the necessary sugar to spark the insulin response and ignite the recovery process.
    Therefore, your choice for hydration will depend on whether your primary aim is rehydration (keeping the body cool and maintaining fluid balance) or the replenishment of energy (sugar and electrolyte stores).”

    What the heck?

    ~Jared

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