Monday, May 13, 2013

this race brought to you by sugary chemical water?

Since taking up running in early 2012, I've participated in my share of races and adventure/obstacle races. Every race I've done, from the small community 5Ks to large races that draw thousands of participants, has had some sort of electrolyte-enhanced sports drink available post-race. I've never been tempted by sports drinks because of the taste. My mind associates them with sickness, since I would drink them during bouts of stomach flu when I was a child.

This weekend, Mark and I participated in Mud on the Mountain, a 7.7 mile, 26 obstacle race at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in the Laurel Highlands.  Gatorade was one of the sponsors, with its logo on the start and finish line banners. 

These photos aren't the greatest quality. It was foggy, raining, and I was about to run up a mountain.

But who owns Gatorade? Pepsi.

What's a race without giant bottles of soda? Should have made one of the obstacles carrying these up the mountain.

Along the course there were hydration stations with Gatorade (in Gatorade cups) as well as water. The Gatorade logo was everywhere. 

I also participated in the Pittsburgh Marathon the previous week, running on a relay team. Gatorade was also a sponsor of that race, and the hydration stations gave a choice of lemon-lime Gatorade or water. 

So what's in Gatorade? The first thing I notice when I look at the nutrition label is that the traditional bottle is actually 2.5 servings. Most people drink the 20 ounces in the bottle, as opposed to pouring 8 ounce servings. For the lemon-lime flavor, which was the flavor available at the marathon as well as Mud on the Mountain, if you drink a serving, you get 14 grams of sugar. If you drink a bottle, you get 34 grams of sugar. 

Turns out you also get a lot more. Here is the list of ingredients, according to the company website: WATER, SUCROSE, DEXTROSE, CITRIC ACID, NATURAL FLAVOR, SALT, SODIUM CITRATE, MONOPOTASSIUM PHOSPHATE, GUM ARABIC, GLYCEROL ESTER OF ROSIN, YELLOW 5.

Water, that's good. Sucrose and dextrose are sugars. Sucrose is table sugar. Dextrose is similar to sucrose, but has a higher glycemic load, which means it can give you a boost of energy, but the crash afterwards is higher, so it is usually tempered with sucrose. Citric acid is a preservative and also gives some flavor (along with the listed unknown "natural" flavors). Salt provides flavor and also sodium (an electrolyte). Sodium citrate is a salt of citric acid and provides some flavoring. Monopotassium Phosphate provides another electrolyte (potassium) and also acts as an emulsifier and pH buffer. Gum arabic is a stabilizer, an additive that has replaced brominated vegetable oil in drinks recently, since Gatorade changed its formula in response to a petition. And finally, Yellow #5 (tartrazine) which is a synthetic food dye derived from petroleum. Yes, petroleum. Tartrazine/yellow #5 is required to be listed on labels even when used in small amounts due to health concerns about allergies or intolerance. 

And that's what's in lemon-lime Gatorade. I don't know about you, but I'm not super interested in a petro-chemical, synthetic sugar water in the name of health and fitness. It's basically glorified soda. 

But what about athletes? Don't we need electrolytes? Electrolytes are minerals (like calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and sodium), and they affect the amount of water in your body, your muscle function, and other important processes. You lose electrolytes when you sweat. You must replace them by drinking fluids. 

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends sports drinks to replenish these electrolytes. That's no big surprise, considering they have financial ties to Gatorade (British Journal of Sports Medicine). We've recently seen a lot of hoopla about nutritionists and health professionals teaming up with and having their meetings sponsored by large food companies, and the sports drink industry is no exception.

The fact remains that for most people, water is all you need to stay hydrated and balanced because you need to work out for 3 hours or so before you need to replenish electrolytes. Research is sketchy that sports drinks improve performance and much of what exists is industry-funded. People were running marathons and excelling in athletic competitions long before Gatorade existed. 

If you are doing high-intensity exercise and you really sweat or feel like you need to replenish, go for electrolyte-enhanced water. It's water with the appropriate minerals added back in after distillation, but none of the other garbage. I drink this type of water sometimes during intense workouts and seem to feel less light-headed afterwards, though I acknowledge that it could be the placebo effect. (I don't like the taste of our tap water, which usually has a small amount of electrolytes naturally.) Get your carbs from a healthy diet and you won't need the sugar water boost of Gatorade.

I am appreciative that races and events like this encourage people to be fit and active. I love participating in them and love the motivation they give me to keep at my fitness goals. And I do understand the need for these events to have sponsors, since they cannot generate enough revenue to produce them on registration fees alone. But in a dream world, the events wouldn't have to promote sugary, chemical-laden junk, either. 

On Saturday, I ran (okay, hiked) up this mountain:

And three hours later slid down this (yes, that is snow and ice in May):

And crossed the finish line without being dehydrated. Muddy, wet and disgusting with my bib number hanging on by a thread? Yes. But I was Gatorade free and pretty proud of it, too.

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