In the world of sports drinks, there are countless options, but what always comes to mind first is Gatorade and Powerade. It doesn’t matter where you go to buy your drinks, you’ll see these two brands everywhere. However, other drinks have been starting to wrench the grip away from them as more are introduced to the market.
Smaller beverage companies and start-ups have started taking over the market with niche sports drinks targeted at specific activities and different types of exercisers, like runners or cross fit enthusiasts. And then there are niches within niches — like Nuun’s sport and caffeine tablets — making sports drink offerings exceptionally specific.
Beverage companies are also marketing sports drinks for outside of fitness use. Companies like Liquid I.V. have done a great job in selling their product to outdoor workers and the chronically-dehydrated. Connecting its products to medical therapy developed by the World Health Organization called oral rehydration salts.
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Even as a certified personal trainer with plenty of sports nutrition education, sports drinks have always felt overwhelming to me. There are just so many and they all claim to do different things. There are trade-offs to consider, too: Should I drink the one with sugar to stay all-natural or should I opt for the one with sucralose to keep calories down?
Using my own knowledge and input from other fitness professionals, I dove into more than 50 ingredients lists to find out which sports drinks are the best for particular goals and types of training. The result is this guide to the six best sports drinks for endurance training, CrossFit, low-intensity exercise, weight loss, building muscle and supporting an all-natural diet.
Personal trainer and fitness studio owner Holly Roser tells CNET that Nuun is the perfect sports drink for hydration and energy, in her opinion. “Made with just electrolytes and caffeine, these small tablets are easy to pop into your water and turn it into a fizzy drink,” she says, adding that they’re great for morning runs because of the caffeine content.
Nuun’s entire line of products promise to help you push through grueling workouts, but Nuun Endurance is specifically formulated to support you during a sweat session for 90 minutes or more. It’s widely used by marathoners, triathletes and other long-distance exercisers, professionally and recreationally.
Each tablet contains 15 grams of sugar, 380 milligrams of sodium and 200 milligrams of potassium, as well as chloride, magnesium and calcium. Together, these ingredients prevent cramps and keep your muscles moving for long workouts.
I used Nuun Endurance while training for long-distance races and it hasn’t let me down yet. I typically use it only for runs 8 miles or longer, but I’ve also popped a tablet when I felt I’d need an energy boost for a shorter run.
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Let’s do a little math here: What do you get when you have a warehouse gym, subtract air conditioning, add summer temperatures and multiply by one of the most intense fitness regimens around. The answer: sweat. Lots of sweat.
Lots of sweat means lots of lost electrolytes, and Liquid I.V. Hydration Multiplier says it can help replace what you lose through sweat. According to Liquid I.V., one packet of Hydration Multiplier powder is equivalent to drinking three bottles of water because of something called Cellular Transport Technology — I don’t necessarily doubt the claim, but take it with a grain of salt.
That said, the formula for Liquid I.V. Hydration Multiplier is rooted in a medical therapy developed by the World Health Organization called oral rehydration salts.
Hydration Multiplier is not a medical therapy, but as it’s based closely on a hydration solution used by major health agencies for decades, I’m confident it can replenish even the sweatiest of CrossFitters.
According to Liquid I.V., salt, sugar, potassium, vitamin C, multiple B vitamins and, of course, water, come together in just the right amounts to deliver nutrients to your bloodstream faster than water alone. It’s also gluten-free, dairy-free, non-GMO and vegan.
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Low-intensity exercise, such as walking or easy cycling, doesn’t really require a sports drink — you typically don’t put your body through enough stress to need the extra calories, sugar or electrolytes, especially if you’re exercising for less than 60 minutes.
However, sometimes it’s nice to sip on a flavored drink. And if you’re going to do so, you might as well choose one with some health benefits. Propel has been around for a while (since 2000) — it’s actually part of the Gatorade family. It’s probably stood the test of time because it tastes good and has zero calories.
Propel revamped its “fitness water” in 2019 with the launch of Propel Vitamin Boost, which contains the same amount of electrolytes as original Propel but also has vitamins B3, B5, B6, C and E.
Vitamin Boost does have two grams of sugar, but I’m in favor of that over the original Propel, which uses sucralose and acesulfame K for sweetness. I also love that Propel Vitamin Boost is free of dyes or colorings — it’s one of the only big-name sports drinks that is.
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Lipsa Shah, a certified personal trainer and yoga teacher, recommends Ultima Replenisher as a sports drink for those looking to lose weight because it’s sugar-free and zero-calorie.
“I turn to Ultima when I have a long day of teaching hot yoga in a 100-plus degree room and personal training,” Shah tells CNET. “Electrolytes are essential for muscle functioning and keeping you performing your best and [Ultima] gives you that without the calories.”
Ultima Replenisher has no sugar or artificial sweeteners — it’s sweetened with stevia — and the first ingredient listed on the powder packets is magnesium citrate, which is a good indicator that this product is high-quality. Magnesium is one of the electrolytes lost through sweat; that it’s the first ingredient on the list means it is the most prevalent ingredient by volume in Ultima Replenisher.
Ultima powder also contains calcium, zinc, manganese, chloride, potassium, sodium and phosphorous — all essential nutrients that need replenishing after a good sweat.
Powerade just released new products for the first time in over a decade: The last new product from the brand was sugar-free Powerade Zero in 2007. The new Powerade Ultra targets people looking to build muscle and strength — with its creatine-based formula, it should help you do just that.
Powerade Ultra contains the same electrolyte formulas as other Powerade products (sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium), but it also includes branched-chain amino acids and creatine.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, thus they’re essential for new muscle growth. BCAAs have a different structure — a branched-chain structure — that makes them more bioavailable. Research shows that drinking BCAA supplements can increase muscle protein synthesis (the process by which muscles grow) by up to 22%.
Your muscles naturally produce creatine, but studies have proven creatine supplements to effectively increase muscle growth in the short-term and long-term. The International Society of Sports Medicine has called it “the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes in terms of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training.”
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We’re getting super natural here. No, not supernatural — super natural, as in the most natural beverage you could possibly drink while exercising and at the same level as water.
Finding an all-natural sports drink is tough, because most are chock-full of artificial sweeteners, colorings and flavors. Even the sports drinks that don’t have any of that are still made in factories or labs and infused with minerals that might not be as bioavailable as those found in natural products.
Shah recommends Harmless Harvest Coconut Water to those looking for a truly natural alternative. While it’s not explicitly marketed as a sports drink, Harmless Harvest Coconut Water has the ingredients you should look for in a sports drink: sugar, sodium, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and magnesium. The only actual ingredient on the bottle, though, is organic coconut water. Coconut contains all of those minerals without the need for fortification.
“It has all the electrolytes your body needs without any of the artificial ingredients,” says Shah, who tries to stay away from processed foods and beverages as much as possible. “Not only is coconut water hydrating, it helps your muscles and reduces soreness, and coconut water has been better than most energy drinks I’ve tried in the past.”
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.