The other day I saw an article headlined "Yes, You Can Make Your Own Electrolyte Drinks (and Gels!)". My first thought was, "Yes, you CAN, but why would you?"
The writer noted that making your own sports drinks (the recipes were for fruit juice-based drinks) and gels (mostly mashed up fruit and added sugar or honey) is "easy" and can save you some money. Saving money on fruit is a lot easier in California than it is in Singapore, but my main issue with the article was that the companies making sports nutrition products have spent tens of millions of dollars on research, figuring out the best way to help you perform at your best over several hours (or far longer).
As a trained nutritionist and ultrarunner I know from personal experience 1) how important it is to keep your tank full of fuel, and 2) how difficult it can be to get your digestive system to accept fuel while you're pushing your body hard, in a race or training.
What do I mean when I say "fuel"? Well, your body requires three things: 1) water, 2), electrolytes and 3) calories. Even if you're only sitting on the couch all day, your body requires those three things. If you're out doing sport, especially in Singapore heat, you require more of each.
Firstly, how much water do you need to consume every day? Water is the main component of blood, it cushions the spinal cord and brain, and it regulates body temperature. Maintaining fluid balance within your body is the single most important factor in sustaining a high level of athletic performance. You should aim to consume 1.5-2 litres of water daily.
Secondly, what are electrolytes? Electrolytes are chemicals that conduct electricity when mixed with water. The electrolytes in human bodies include: sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate, chloride and phosphate. They regulate nerve and muscle function, hydrate the body, balance blood acidity and pressure, and help rebuild damaged tissue. The symptoms of electrolyte imbalance can include twitching, weakness and, if unchecked, seizures and heart rhythm disturbances. Obviously, then, you need electrolytes!
Finally, calories. Exercising muscles rely on carbohydrates as their main source of fuel. In the body, all carbohydrate is eventually converted to blood glucose, or stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen, and any excess carbohydrate is stored as fat. The level of glycogen in your muscles before you start exercise is the most important fuel determinant of performance.
Can't your body rely on its stores of fat rather than replacement sports nutrition? Yes, and no. Your body has plenty of fat it can turn into energy, but fat is hard to burn. A typical athlete weighing 80 kilogrammes has body fat stores of 75,000 calories, enough to run 250 kilometres; at the same time, he has just 1800 calories of muscle glycogen, enough to run just 32 kilometres. So if you are trying to perform at a high level, you need to refuel faster than your body can tap into its reserves of energy stored in fat.
A final nutrition requirement is protein. Proteins are the body's building blocks, essential to building (and repairing) muscles. Inadequate protein intake can lead to over-training syndrome, overuse injuries, slow recovery, and a depressed immune system (leading to illness).
So, yes, you can try to DIY your sports nutrition, but if you do, I suggest you start reading up on the subject! A whole lot of research has gone into the development of products that allow athletes to perform at their peak, for hours on end, without stomach upset.
At Red Dot Running Company we're always happy to talk to customers about sports nutrition, and I frequently give talks on the subject, and am asked to consult in detail with customers who are undertaking tough multi-day events (such as the Marathon de Sables ultramarathon or the Race Across America (RAAM), "the world's toughest bicycle race”.
In the shop we carry sports nutrition products from Tailwind, Veloforte, Unived, Spring Energy, Muir Energy, Mag-On, Overstim.s and BIX. Contact us to have a chat about what might work best for you!
About the Writer:
Jeri Chua is an accomplished endurance athlete and ultra-runner who got her start as a Singapore national team triathlete. She has successfully competed in endurance events such as the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, the Ultra Trail Mont-Blanc 168km ultra-marathon in France and the 330km Tor Des Geants mountain ultra-marathon in Italy. She founded the Red Dot Running Company in 2016.