Athletic Hydration Science: Coconut Water

As part of my ongoing self experimentation exercises, I’ve focused on improving athletic performance, specifically during soccer matches.  As a low carb, mostly primal eater, I think I’ve done a good job of pinpointing a pre game feeding ritual aimed at spiking insulin right at game time.  The goal here is to get insulin to do its job of delivering glucose to the muscles right as it is needed and deliver it relatively evenly over time.

The problem is that soccer matches are generally fairly long and it can be difficult for your body to keep up with energy and micronutrient demands.  During a full match distance covered can be over 5 miles with a mix of walking, jogging, running, and sprinting.  This takes a toll on your ability to keep up both aerobically and anaerobically.

Enter hydration

Our first and natural source of hydration is water, but sometimes water just doesn’t cut it.   It lacks the nutrients and sugars that we consume during intense activity.  While I’d like to think that a bottle of red wine or mead might do the trick, alcohol kind of impairs just about every fine motor skill and cognitive ability that are somewhat important during a game.
During matches we tend to consume certain micronutrients such as sodium, potassium and manganese which are essential in the transport of sugars and production of ATP.  This is why Gatorade has made sports drinks famous.  The point of Gatorade is to provide a blend of sugar and electrolytes to replace those lost during competition.  The solutions in most coolers are actually diluted gatorade which taste pretty disgusting, but are often attributed with reduced gut rot and optimal sugar and nutrient delivery.  The corn syrupy goodness that you find in stores are commercial blends optimized for consumer palettes and addictive qualities.
As a solution to gut rut problem, one company, Skratch Labs, concocted a “Secret Drink Mix”, which altered the sugar and electrolyte proportions to improve osmotic pressure in the gut.  I haven’t tried this cycling-centric mixture yet, but I plan to do so during the upcoming soccer season.  This is however, a man-made mixture, and being the Paleo type of guy made me want search for other solutions with a preference for something natural.  This search led me to coconut water.

Looks delicious right?

What is Coconut Water?

Coconut water is the clear fluid in the center of the coconut and is collected from young immature coconuts.  There are many purported benefits including hydration in tropical climates, sugar replacement, mineral content, anti-oxidant content, amino acids, and electrolytes among others.  I’ll let you research it elsewhere, but basically coconut water is composed of a solution that is comparable to the blood stream which is a pretty good indicator that it will be able to cross the gut fairly easily.  If its used for an IV it must be good right?

Why Coconut Water?

Aside from the concentration of the solution, coconut water has all of the nutrients that you shed during a match including sugar, sodium, potassium, magnesium and manganese.  Sounds like a perfect fit right?  With its concentration and composition of nutrients coconut water looked like a good way to provide fuel as glucose and nutrients to ensure optimal ATP production.

So How Did Coconut Water Work?

For my self experiment I created a hypothesis as follows: Drinking X amount of Coconut Water at halftime would improve second half intensity compared to water.
I tested this on 3 games, with the first game being the “placebo” where I consumed only water.  The second game I consumed 500 mL of coconut water and the third game I consumed 550 mL of coconut water.  Overall, the results with coconut water were excellent.  You can see the miCoach pages for the related workouts below:
I’ve constructed a table showing some of the key statistics from the matches.
Of course the overall goal was to improve intensity during the second half of a match.  So I’ve included the intensity charts for each game below.  It looks to me that second half intensity closely matched first half intensity until about the last quarter of the game.  What was interesting is that I was able to clock in a top speed of 19.92 mph during the last fifteen minutes of the match in game 3.  Match 1 was sort of sad in that I was tired very quickly and had to be subbed out in both halves of the game.  Games 2 and 3 required no substitution.

INTENSITY CHARTS

Coconut Water Experiment – Game 1 – Placebo: Water Only

Coconut Water Experiment – Game 2

Coconut Water Experiment Game 3

Summary

I was impressed with the results from coconut water consumption.  I think I might be able to up the dosage slightly to improve things a bit, which I will try during the upcoming season.  I’m guessing that the optimal consumption should be around 750 mLs or so.  Overall, I felt that I had more energy throughout the game and was able to keep up with college kids 10 years younger than me fairly easily.  I had no problems with gut rot or cramping either.  The solution appeared to keep up with energy and micronutrient requirements very well.  My verdict is that coconut water will be my preferred in-match hydration source until I can find anything better.
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