Functional Sports Drinks
    Functional Sports Drinks

    What do we mean by functional and how does what we consume affect the body? Ian Craig discusses your functional health through the lens of sports drinks.

    What do I mean by functional? Functional has been a buzz word in exercise for many years, so we can use it as an example: Exercise needs to be specific to the particular sport that you’re involved in. It would be mostly a waste of time for a footballer to base his conditioning on the use of two-dimensional weights machines, when his sport actually involves regular rapid changes of direction in thoroughly three-dimensional movement patterns.

    Nutrition is no different: Why ask an athlete to consume a sports drink that is based simply on sugar, colourants, flavourants and water, when the only active ingredient in it is sugar (if timed and used correctly). We want to be nourishing the athlete’s body, but by adding ingredients such as colourants and flavourants, which require detoxification, we may be asking his or her body to expend more energy than the drink supplies. Detoxification processes actually require more energy than any other biochemical process in the body,1 so just think what would happen if you could lower the amount of energy required for detoxing – you might have more energy available for training and recovering.

    On the other hand, think about consuming a drink that is free from all artificial additives and contains ingredients that have known beneficial effects on your body. So, not only are you taking in a ‘clean’ product that doesn’t require extra energy to process, but you’re getting nutrients that can help with the various systems in the body, required for intense exercise.


    But exercise is healthy you say, so our body will be better able to cope with bad foods…

    You’re right up to a point, but over a certain training threshold, exercise starts to put more expectations on the body than it can cope with: Heavy endurance training demands large quantities of energy; it breaks down muscle; it releases stress hormones; it can deplete the immune system; it may cause digestive irritability; it increases the likelihood of an over-use injury; it pressurises nutrient reserves in the body; and endurance exercise can potentially even age you more quickly.2

    In a nutshell, heavy exercise programmes are very hard on our bodies over time. This potential physical deterioration can be exacerbated if you have many other commitments in your life such as a demanding job, family, a busy social life, perhaps insufficient sleep. Bad nutrition can make things worse, but good nutritional choices can help to give some degree of support to your training and busy life.

    Functional Sports Drinks

    There are many aspects of good nutritional practices, but the one that I will share with you in this article is sports drinks – healthy sports drinks. I’ll give you a few examples of my favourite functional drinks – sweet, tasty solutions that contain ingredients supportive of your athletic health.


    • Carbs (or sugars) – needed to support blood sugar levels during prolonged exercise. Comes in simple forms like glucose, sucrose and fructose and complex forms like maltodextrin and waxy maize starch. Use 60 g per one litre water.
    • Electrolytes – mineral salts including sodium, potassium and magnesium. Needed for fluid balance and muscle contraction and may be needed in higher quantities with people who cramp.
    • Protein – used in some sports drinks for longer durations when you are more reliant on protein as a fuel. Whey protein isolate or hydrosylate is perhaps the easiest for most people to digest during endurance exercise.
    • Glutamine – the main amino acid used as fuel during exercise. It is also needed by the immune system, detox system and digestive processes.
    • Branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs) – the main amino acids that make up the protein in muscle. If depleted, can cause muscle break-down.
    • Antioxidants – important to balance the free radicals that are produced during heavy exercise. Found in fruits and vegetables and their juices or concentrates.


    Having just told you how hard exercise can be on your body, I can now tell you that it is possible to provide a certain amount of support through the fluid that you consume before, during and after exercise. For instance, it has been demonstrated that stress hormones released during exercise can inhibit immune function and that a sugary sports drink can decrease the release of these stress hormones.3 What’s more, it has been demonstrated conclusively that a six to eight percent sugar solution can greatly increase the time it takes before an athlete reaches exhaustion.4

    So, it is therefore important for a sports drink to contain some form of sugar (or carbohydrate): Sugar-free, electrolyte-only drinks may be useful for fluid replacement, but are not likely to give the same degree of physical support during the lengthy training or racing bouts that serious athletes regularly undertake.

    A new ingredient that is used instead of sugars or maltodextrin is malt. Malt is another possible carbohydrate source in sports drinks.

    Make your own

    What else can we put in a sports drink? I often make my own sports drinks – I start off with a base of maltodextrin or some other long-chain carb (which you buy from certain health shops). If we were to follow the science, the quantity would be 60 g per litre of water (6% solution); however, we need to be very individual here. A hard-pushing athlete might need this amount of sugar to maximise his/her training or racing returns, but if you are more of a recreational athlete, a lower dose might be more appropriate – perhaps half this amount of sugar in some cases. Additionally, if you’re doing a long endurance event like the Comrades or Ironman, you are likely to be consuming some solid foods along the way – the more you eat, the less you need to rely on the sugar in your drink for energy, meaning that you can consume a more diluted sports drink.

    In addition to the sugar in a drink, I would suggest adding a pinch of sea salt or an electrolyte product such as ‘Elete Electrolyte’ for longer duration training. Into the mix might also go some glutamine powder, perhaps some magnesium powder (especially if there is any history of cramping) and also a bit of vitamin C powder. These are all ingredients that are supporting the body’s systems that are put under pressure during training: they are explained in the table of ingredients.

    Functional Sports Drinks

    Fresh juice options

    We can go a step further with our sports drink nutrition and start with a fresh juice. Juices are made directly from fresh fruits or vegetables, which obviously contain a lot of vitamins and minerals and antioxidants that the body needs to perform its daily tasks, as well as the exercise that you demand of it. A freshly squeezed juice is even higher in nutrients than a juice in a carton. This is what I describe as functional: supportive to your immune system, your detox pathways, your digestion, your muscles and other soft tissues and of course your energetic pathways. Here are a few examples of healthy sports drink bases:

    Coconut water

    Sports people are increasingly using the water from inside young coconuts as their preferred sports beverage. The highlight of coconut water is the electrolyte composition, which is apparently so well balanced for human health that it can be safely injected intravenously into the human blood stream, sometimes saving lives. It is very alkaline and as a sports drink, is slightly lower in sugar (4 to 5%) than commercial drinks (6 to 8%), and it can be comfortably drunk while exercising.

    Cherry juice

    Cherry juice is extremely high in antioxidants. A 30 ml shot contains 274 mg of the anthocyanins antioxidants (the same amount you’d find in over 180 blueberries). One research study has been conducted with the CherryActive product:5 Ten well-trained rugby, football and martial arts participants took the cherry concentrate or an equivalent placebo for 10 days. On day eight, the participants did heavy leg extension exercises, trying to maximise muscle damage. Muscle strength recovered to 91% 24 hours later with the cherry extract, compared to 85% with placebo, a small but significant difference.

    Iced green tea

    Green tea is rich in antioxidants and has become a popular black tea substitute because it is free from caffeine. It has additionally received considerable research attention due to its fat-burning properties. All you need to do is to brew a litre of green tea, let it cool and add the sugars, salts and other ingredients that are listed in the table.

    Beetroot juice

    Beetroot juice is claimed to be high in nitrates, which increases oxygenation of red blood cells and hence improves oxygen transport around the body. At the University of Exeter, Sports Scientist Andy Jones and colleagues conducted tests to assess the effect of the regular consumption of beetroot juice compared to blackcurrant cordial on bicycle time to exhaustion.6 On average, subjects cycled for 16% longer after consuming ½ a litre of the beetroot juice per day for six days. Additionally, further research has demonstrated that beetroot juice may decrease oxygen consumption while walking, thereby improving metabolic efficiency.

    Functional Sports Drinks

    Grape juice

    Grapes are very high in the flavonoid antioxidants, which is one reason that red wine has such purported health benefits: a glass a day keeps the doctor away! Research shows that grape extract improves the antioxidant status and performance of top athletes from the sports of handball, basketball, sprinting and volleyball.7 When they were given a daily dose of 400 mg of a grape extract for one month, scientists found improvements in the antioxidant status of the athletes’ bodies plus a reduction in cell damage during exercise. I often use grape juice as a DIY sports drink base: Simply mix grape juice ½ and ½ with water to attain the 6 to 8% sugar concentration and then you can add the various ingredients listed on above.


    1. Muller A, & Yeoh C. Compromised Detoxification – Chapter 3. Biochemical Imbalances in Disease. London, UK: Singing Dragon. 2010.
    2. Craig I. The effects of exercise on the ageing process. The Nutrition Practitioner. Autumn 2010.
    3. Gleeson M. How eating can combat illness in athletes. FSN. May/June 2012.
    4. Coyle et al. Muscle glycogen utilization during prolonged strenuous exercise when fed carbohydrate. J Appl Physiol. 1986;61:165-172.
    5. Bowtell J et al. Montmorency cherry juice reduces muscle damage caused by intensive strength exercise. Med Sci Sp Exer. 2011;43(8):1544- 1551.
    6. Bailey S et al. Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of low-intensity exercise and enhances tolerance to high-intensity exercise in humans. J Appl Physiol. 2009; 107(4):1144-1155.
    7. Lafay S et al. Grape extract improves antioxidant status and physical performance in elite male athletes. J Sp Sci Med. 2009; 8:468-480
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