Is Coconut Water As Hydrating As A Sports Drink?
Or water, for that matter? We ask a sports nutrition specialist
In recent years coconut water has gone from a drink people only enjoyed straight from the nut itself on beach holidays to one found on the shelves of every supermarket. We’re going to humbly suggest that’s not because it tastes fantastic, because coconut water’s flavour is best described as divisive, or acquired.
Coconut water’s popularity is instead largely based on its widely-trumpeted hydrating properties. If you’re a fitness fiend tired of glugging down water and sports drinks, you have probably considered coconut water as an alternative option.
But is it up to snuff as an hydrating sports drink? Coach asked sports nutrition expert Anita Bean for the low-down. We’re duty bound to tell you that Bean is working with coconut water brand Vita Coco (opens in new tab), but we’ve always found her advice to be BS-free.
What are the nutritional benefits of coconut water?
In terms of nutritional composition coconut water can officially be labelled as “low calorie”, because it contains 18 calories per 100ml – EU legislation states that anything less than 20 is low calorie. It also contains 4.5g of carbohydrate per 100ml, which is pretty similar to most sports drinks, give or take. At that concentration it’s isotonic, which means it contains the same number of dissolved substances as body fluid, so it can be absorbed more rapidly than water.
It contains potassium – a lot of people say it’s absolutely packed with potassium, but actually according to EU legislation it doesn’t quite reach the criteria [to be considered high in potassium]. But it does contain potassium – 100ml provides 9% of your RDA. And the vitamin C content is 18mg per 100g, which is 23% of RDA.
How does it stack up against water and sports drinks?
It can be used in the same fashion as a sports drink – during and after exercise for rehydrating – but it hasn’t been extensively researched. There have only been handful of studies, and most of the research was initially done in Malaysia, the most noteworthy in 2007 on a group of cyclists in a lab. They found that there was no difference between the rehydrating potential of coconut water, sodium-enriched coconut water, water and sports drinks.
It’s only very recently that scientists have looked at coconut water during exercise. A study carried out at Northumbria University and published last year did a similar thing, they gave a group of ten cyclists in the lab different types of drinks – water and coconut water – and measured various parameters of their hydration, heart rate and performance as they did a short cycling time trial. There was no difference in hydration or performance.
The science is quite consistent, and quite clear that it’s just as good as water for hydrating during and after exercise.
There was also one study in the US in 2012 by the University of Memphis. Cyclists were given four different drinks before exercise, and again their performance was measured. And – I’m going to say the same thing – there was no difference in rehydration or performance in the subsequent exercise that they performed.
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The conclusion to all that is that coconut water is as effective as water and sports drinks when consumed before, during and after exercise, certainly any exercise that lasts up to an hour, which is typical for most people. It hasn’t been studied extensively during exercise that lasts longer than an hour, so we can’t really say anything about it.
Is coconut water more like a sports drink or an electrolyte tab or drink?
It’s closer to a sports drink, because it contains carbohydrates and sugars. The sugar content is quite similar to most sports drinks.
Are there any key differences to sports drinks?
What I would say as a nutritionist is that sports drinks are designed to supply sugars and sodium, but you don’t actually need the sodium unless your sweat losses are very high. The general rule that sport scientists say is that in exercise less than two hours long, sweat losses aren’t really high enough to require these drinks – you’re not losing enough sodium. Sports drinks are more beneficial when exercise lasts longer than about two hours, or when exercising very intensely, or if you’re sweating very heavily. If it’s less than that we can rehydrate with water, or coconut water.
A lot of people also don’t like the idea of sports drinks, because they see them as a very processed drink and the ingredients include artificial sweeteners, preservatives, colours. It’s the additives people worry about. The beauty of coconut water is that it is just the juice of the coconut, it hasn’t been overly processed, which appeals to a lot of people.
If you are exercising for a long time or very intensely, can you get the sodium you need by adding a pinch of salt to coconut water?
Absolutely. It’s not available commercially but that’s something that I can definitely recommend.
How much do you need to drink during or after exercise to stay hydrated?
There aren’t any strict rules for how much to drink during exercise – the official advice we give out even to top marathon runners is to drink when thirsty. But if you are exercising at a fairly high intensity the advice is somewhere between 400ml and 800ml per hour. Vita Coco comes in 330ml cartons, so if someone is exercising at a high intensity then that would be fine for 45 minutes to an hour. But the advice is basically to drink when thirsty.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.