Using Coconut Water as an Electrolyte Drink During Runs

Coconut Water

 Photo: Alexandra Shytsman

Coconut water has gained in popularity as an alternative to sports drinks or recovery drinks for runners and other athletes. It is low in calories, fat-free, and cholesterol-free. But is it really more healthy than the traditional alternatives? For some, it may be.

What Is Coconut Water?

Coconut water is different from high-fat coconut milk or coconut oil. It's a clear liquid that comes from the center of young, green coconuts. Coconut water is made from an emulsion of the grated meat and fluid of a coconut.

Pure coconut water is also not the same as coconut-flavored beverages. Some sweet drinks include coconut flavoring as well as added sugars and other ingredients. These drinks are generally not advised as hydration fluids during runs.

Coconut water contains about 46 calories per one-cup serving. It also provides about nine grams of carbohydrate, just under two grams of protein and zero fat. Coconut water also boosts your intake of certain micronutrients that provide specific benefits to runners.

Benefits for Runners

Coconut water contains easily-digested carbohydrates in the form of sugar. Many runners who participate in long training runs or races need to replace carbohydrates in order to maintain energy levels and muscular endurance. Coconut water contains naturally-occurring sugar that can provide an immediate energy boost.

Coconut water also provides micronutrients such as potassium and magnesium that runners and athletes lose during workouts. These micronutrients help your body to function better during long workouts.

Potassium assists in muscular contraction, nerve transmission, and heart function. According to that National Institutes of Health (NIH), adult women need 2,600 mg of potassium per day. Men need 3,400 mg per day. A single cup of coconut water provides 600 milligrams.

Magnesium is another micronutrient that is helpful for athletes. Magnesium provides several jobs including regulating muscle and nerve function. According to the NIH, women need 310-320 mg per day and men need 400-420 mg of magnesium per day. One cup of coconut water provides about 60 milligrams of magnesium.

Coconut water provides easily digestible carbohydrates that can be helpful for runners as well as magnesium and potassium that enhance muscle and nerve function.

Coconut Water vs. Other Beverages

Coconut water is often touted as a superior alternative to water and other sports beverages. But studies have not confirmed substantial benefits.

Coconut Water vs. Water

Studies have investigated how coconut water compares to plain water for the purposes of hydration during sports like running.

Most studies that have compared coconut water to plain water or to sports drinks have been limited in nature. That is, they involve only a few test subjects and many of them only include well-trained men.

While studies have shown that coconut water is as effective at rehydration as water, most study authors suggest that it is no more effective at rehydration and that more studies are needed to determine additional benefits.

As a consumer, there are a few things to consider when you are comparing water to coconut water. First, coconut water is more expensive than water and is not likely to be available on race day. If you're used to training with the drink, you'd have to carry it with you if you want to consume it during a competitive event.

However, coconut water contains calories (energy) and micronutrients that may decrease your need for sports gels depending on how long and intense your race is.

Coconut Water vs. Sports Drinks

Pure Coconut Water

  • Does not contain added sugars

  • Not likely to be available at races

  • Does not contain electrolytes

  • May produce less nausea

  • Easier for some to consume

Sports Beverage

  • May contain added sugars

  • Popular brands usually available during races

  • Available for purchase at most stores

  • Usually contains electrolytes

  • May cause nausea

Some runners have wondered how coconut water compares to sports drinks. Some athletes may be interested in replacing drinks like Gatorade with coconut water because it is more natural.

Pure coconut water does not contain the levels of electrolytes, especially sodium, that are found in sports drinks and are necessary to replace all of the electrolytes lost through sweat.

Commercial sports drinks, such as Gatorade, offer a complete hydration and electrolyte replacement option for runners who are running for more than 60 minutes.

However, one study found that coconut water caused less nausea, increased fullness and no stomach upset when compared with carbohydrate-electrolyte beverages. Test subjects also found that it was easier to consume in a larger amount.

But that study did not involve running in a race. During your races, coconut water is not likely to be available at water stops. However, Gatorade and other similar fuels are almost always offered.

Timing

During Short Runs

Don't forget that if you're running less than an hour, you don't need to worry about electrolyte replacement, so plain water should suffice. And because research has indicated that plain water hydrates as well as coconut water, you may choose to drink water because it has fewer calories. However, if you like the taste of coconut water, it's certainly a good option for those shorter runs. 

During Long Runs

Some runners will opt for drinking coconut water during long runs because their sensitive stomachs can't tolerate the sugar and artificial sweeteners in many conventional sports drinks. On the other hand, you should definitely see how well you tolerate coconut water before you decide to use it for a long run.

One study found the subjects didn't like the taste, and as a result drank far less of the coconut water than they did plain water, which could put you at risk of dehydration. Another study found that the subjects experienced more bloating and stomach upset when using coconut water as compared to a sports drink.

If you find that you enjoy coconut water and tolerate it well, you may want to add a few sprinkles of salt to it or do a salt shot halfway through your long run to make sure you're replacing sodium.

Recovery Drink

Coconut water is also used by runners as a recovery drink and a natural way to replenish electrolytes after a hard run or workout. Some runners like to mix it with protein powder to make sure that they're getting the ideal 3-to-1 protein to carbohydrate ratio for optimal recovery.

Recipes, Tips, Common Mistakes

A common mistake that some runners make when consuming coconut water is forgetting about the calories. While the beverage can rehydrate like water, it provides substantially more calories. If you drink it throughout the day, those calories can add up—potentially causing unwanted weight gain.

When choosing coconut water, be sure that you look for unsweetened varieties, as some coconut drinks contain added sugars (and therefore more calories). Check the label to be sure that the product contains only coconut water and no other fillers or flavors.

Also, check the product label to see if the product needs to be refrigerated. Some brands recommend it.

If you choose not to enjoy coconut water during your run, consider adding it to a post-run smoothie. Add bananas, fresh berries, coconut milk and coconut water to a blender and add a small amount of protein powder. You'll get a filling, protein enriched treat that also provides carbohydrate and potassium for muscle recovery.

A Word From Verywell

It is important to stay hydrated during endurance exercise and replenish your body after exercising. Coconut water can be one way to do that, but only if it is something you enjoy drinking. It has long been a recommendation of the American College of Sports Medicine that whatever you use for fluid replacement must be palatable so you will drink enough of it.

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