I love running. If I don’t run several times a week, I go insane. I hope to be fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon someday. Runner’s World is my Bible, but lately, I’m losing faith in the Word.
I’ve been looking for an alternative sports drink for several years. I ran my first marathon with Team in Training in 2006 and have since run 8 more. For athletes, or for us normal folks who regularly work out for over an hour at a time, replenishing electrolytes is really important. I learned this the hard way at the LA Marathon in 2007 when it was 80 degrees and the water stops ran out of Gatorade. By mile 16, I had stopped sweating, my fingers were like sausages, and I swore I saw purple people on top of the sky scrapers. It wasn’t pretty.
Unfortunately, the generally endorsed sources of electrolyte replenishment are not very healthy. All of the major sports drink brands—Gatorade, Powerade, and Cytomax, for example—list high-fructose corn syrup as the primary ingredient, after water. You might have seen those commercials claiming that high-fructose corn syrup is no different from sugar, but Princeton University (and a lot of other qualified folks) says that just isn’t so. The lower or zero calorie versions are sweetened with artificial sweetener, which is potentially a whole ‘nother bag of bad news.
In addition, none of the major sports drink brands, regardless of caloric content, are sufficient sources of complete electrolyte replenishment. Most endurance event experts will tell trainees to take additional supplements. I’ve tried forcing down salt packets (YUCK) in the middle of races. I’ve tried taking pill-form supplements that made me feel like I had bugs crawling in and out of my muscle tissue. It kind of felt like this:
I stuck with Gatorade all those years because I didn’t feel like I had a natural option for electrolyte replenishment. I discounted the efficacy of coconut water because most of the experts, including my beloved Runner’s World, always said something like, “Coconut water has enough carbohydrates for an hour-long run but not enough sodium for longer efforts.”
Here are some nutrition labels, for comparison’s sake:
You’ll notice though, that the serving sizes here are all different. So when calculated for an 8-oz serving size, here’s the comparison for sodium:
Cytomax: 97 mg
Gatorade: 110 mg
Powerade: 100 mg
Zico: 91.2 mg
That’s not that a big a difference, considering these sports drinks already require additional supplement, and your daily value for sodium is 2400 mg. Also, look at the nutrition labels and notice something else: Zico blows all three of the others out of the water, in terms of its overall coverage of the essential electrolytes. Gatorade and Powerade only have sodium and a tiny bit of potassium. Cytomax is a little better, because it also has a little bit of calcium and magnesium. All three of them are high in sugar and are made with high fructose corn syrup (or, in the case of Cytomax, its powdered form).
Then, I came across this video:
Dean Karnazes is the Ultramarathon Man and all-around distance running god. Recently, he busted out 50 marathons, in all 50 states, in 50 consecutive days, finishing with the NYC Marathon, which he completed in three hours and thirty seconds. He has won Badwater, the world’s toughest footrace, a 135-mile ultramarathon across Death Valley in 120-degree temperatures. He’s run a 200-mile relay solo, racing alongside teams of 12. He has completed a 350-mile run. The man knows what it means to need electrolyte replenishment. And here he is, promoting coconut water?
When I started Bikram classes at a major yoga mecca in San Francisco, nobody there drank Gatorade or any other artificial sports drink, despite the 90 minute classes at 105 degree temperatures. Some of these people trained for professional competitions by going to two or three classes daily. None of them had any problems with hyponatremia or other electrolyte deficiencies. They drank plain water and Zico coconut water.
Despite what the experts say, a lot of hardcore professional athletes seem to dig Zico coconut water. I decided to ask my marathon training buddies. Most of these people are involved in Team in Training, and have been running marathons to fundraise for cancer research and patient services for longer than I’ve been a runner. I posed this question on Facebook: Runner friends! What have you heard about coconut water? Would you consider using it as a Gatorade/Powerade/Cytomax alternative? Why or Why not?
Most of them had heard good things, but hadn’t tried it yet. “Why don’t you give it a shot and see how it goes?” they suggested.
My old Team in Training coach Patrick said, “I’d say that just like with any electrolyte replacement drink, you should try it out at varying distances and see what it does or doesn’t do for you.”
I switched to Zico three months ago. I go to 3 Bikram classes and run around 20 miles every week. For my activity level, which is way higher than the average American, Zico is doing just fine. Better than fine, because I’m taking in more potassium, fewer calories, and I’m not sucking down all that high-fructose corn syrup.
I won’t pretend to know what coconut water will do for your body if you switch too. But why not? And when you try it, I’d really love to hear about it for a follow-up post!
This fan-made video pretty much details how I feel about the whole thing: