Pre-Loading on Sports Drinks?

Last week, during an initial consultation with a client based in Holland, I began the call with the typical Q&A. I like to get a sense of the background of each person I work with and learn a bit more about how they learned about Paleo, what their health concerns are, nutritional background as well as fitness or racing goals and so on. This was a young man who’d been placing top five in his age group, but felt his nutrition might be the missing link. When he reviewed the current protocol, it was similar to what I hear a lot of …and it’s more or less the same advice you’ll get in any running, triathlon or any sports magazine for that matter. He was consuming a lot of refined, processed carbs, both in training and in racing as well as in day to day eating, as we are told, as endurance athletes, that we need to do. But what struck me in particular was what he does prior to the race, for several days in terms of hydration and ‘preloading on electrolytes’. He drinks bottles and bottles of gatorade for two to three days prior to racing his event, which is the half-iron distance of 70.3 miles of swimming, biking and running. While this might make sense at first glance; adding some extra sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium to the body to ‘stock up’ on what we’re going to lose through sweat, consuming mass quantities of Gatorade is not exactly the best way to go about preparing the body nutritionally for the main event. We can leave the fact that the Gatorade brand, despite probably being the most popular brand worldwide, and despite the fact that Gatorade’s research institute foots the bill for many studies telling us to keep downing the salts and focus on the big picture:  if we eat properly, (ahem, as in, a True Paleo regime), we actually end up eating the proper amounts of electrolytes as well as every other nutrient we need. In fact, we also get them in the proper ratios!   The Standard American Special is high in sodium and low in potassium, while paleo is just the opposite. So does that mean we don’t need to replace the salts at all? Some studies are leaning that way.  One book in particular that’s worth reading is Tim Noakes’ Waterlogged. In a nutshell, the book’s jacket sums it up: “Tim Noakes sets the record straight, exposing the myths surrounding dehydration and presenting up-to-date hydration guidelines for endurance sport and prolonged training activities.” At the same time, we must factor in  sweat rate, ambient conditions, body size, fitness level and ability to acclimate. And simply downing copious amounts of water is not the way to go, either, as then you can put yourself at risk for hyponaturemia, which can be fatal. So what’s the safest thing to do? One option is to measure your sweat rate in a laboratory but even then, the results and advice will vary based on the technician’s skill and unique methodology. You can also check your own hydration by weighing in before and after a training session, seeing how much weight you’ve lost and replacing fluid at the rate of 1.5 L of fluid for each kilogram of body weight lost. Salt tablets as well as other ‘sports nutrition’ electrolyte products abound these days, too; some more less malicious than others; some include sorbitol, a low calorie sugar alcohol which allows the product to take shape of a perfect circle, and ‘fizz’ like an Alka-Seltzer tablet… but, by the way, sorbitol is also used clinically as a laxative and cause significant GI distress. It’s all so confusing, isn’t it? Just take a step back and consider how, if you rely on real foods, eaten in a balanced manner,  you’ll provide your body with the correct supply of all it needs, in the correct proportions. This is not to say that if you’re racing in 105 degrees tomorrow and you’ve been taking salts all along you should change your game; rather, just consider what you’re putting into your body, where the information is coming from and how valid it really is. And, if you want to ‘load up’ on something for a few days before the race, why not make some bone broth and sip that? Pre-nourish your muscles, mind and soul with something real, rather than sucrose (table sugar), dextrose, citric acid, natural flavor, sodium chloride (table salt), sodium citrate, mono potassium phosphate, and flavoring/coloring ingredients. Even better, some Gatorade flavor variations use brominated vegetable oil as a stabilizer. Want to pre-load up on some electrolytes in the right balance? Cantaloupe makes a great choice for potassium, Spinach is a superb source of calcium, seaweed provides chloride and leafy greens and nuts provide magnesium. Balance.  Real Food. Simple.