Athletes Love This Hydration Hack
The electrolyte-boosting tablets are an alternative to sports drinks for endurance athletes. But what do they do for the rest of us?
Countless companies have tried to reinvent water. They’ve infused it with vitamins, electrolytes, or rock salt for “better body balance.” Most of these, as Elemental has previously reported, are plain old H2O in an overpriced bottle. But what about hydration that doesn’t come in liquid form at all?
Nuun is a Seattle-based brand that has a loyal following of endurance athletes. Its electrolyte and vitamin-infused tablets dissolve into water and create what the company calls a “refreshingly effervescent hydration beverage.” (The evidence for this seems to be that the drink is fizzy and fairly tasty, according to several Nuun fans I spoke to for this story.)
With a Silicon Valley-esque name, tubular packaging, and slogans like “hydration you can feel,” you might expect Nuun to be another wellness brand hawking some kind of miracle cure. But unlike dietary supplement companies that make outrageous promises or use unsafe ingredients, Nuun’s sports product delivers on its claims: helping athletes replenish electrolytes during long runs and bike rides.
“Electrolyte balance helps to maintain fluid balance,” says Yasi Ansari, a registered sports dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which cannot comment on branded products. “By being adequately hydrated, this helps both mental and physical sports performance.”
Electrolytes are salts such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium that help the body regulate blood pressure and muscle contraction. When you lose them through sweat, you get the familiar symptoms of dehydration: cramps, headaches, nausea, and dizziness.
Nuun’s “sport” tablet helps you stock up on these, without the added carbohydrates of Gatorade. That’s a big part of the appeal for athletes who use Nuun. “The reason I particularly like Nuun is I’m sensitive to drinks that have a lot of sugar in them; when I’m running, it upsets my stomach,” says Rachel E. Scherr, assistant research scientist at the University of California, Davis. (It’s also what makes it a good hangover cure.)
Nuun has, however, started to expand further outside the sports world, targeting customers for activities such as recovery, travel, and sitting at home with their three lines called vitamins, immunity, and rest. For those purposes, experts see less of a clear benefit.
“You don’t need anything like this unless you’re working out for an hour or more,” Scherr says. “A lot of times people start working out and they get really focused on what supplements they need to take. In general, making sure you adequately replenish with water and consume adequate nutrients can be done without extra supplements.”
“Electrolyte balance helps to maintain fluid balance. By being adequately hydrated, this helps both mental and physical sports performance.”
To support “overall muscle relaxation,” Nuun offers a mix of sodium, potassium, and magnesium; when you’re “stressed with travel or fighting an illness,” a mix of zinc and vitamin C promises to strengthen your immune system. (As Elemental reported in February, the science is still out on whether zinc and vitamin C do anything to stop a cold once it’s begun, but it might be beneficial if taken regularly.)
The benefit of Nuun’s vitamin tablet is also unclear. “Healthy people do not need to take extra vitamins,” says Pieter Cohen, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on the dietary supplement industry. “In the United States, no matter where you get your food from — if you’re growing it in your garden, cooking it in your kitchen every day, or if you’re going out and eating fast food — you are getting enough vitamins and minerals.”
Cohen is a longtime critic of claims made by supplements, since they legally do not need to undergo human studies to market themselves. Take Nuun, which says its rest tablet will “help you unwind.” “That’s a powerful claim,” Cohen says. “That’s saying, ‘this will relax you,’ maybe like a beer would — or even anti-anxiety medication. So what evidence does the company need to support a claim like that, legally? The answer is not much.”
Nuun’s claims about daily hydration are also a bit overblown, experts say. Its website warns that “75% of people live their lives chronically dehydrated.” According to Jodi Stookey, senior epidemiologist with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, this is misleading, because experts have no scientific consensus for a definition of chronic dehydration.
For most people, water is hydrating enough. But if Nuun helps you stay hydrated because you like the taste and you’re more likely to drink flavored water, go for it. Just know that after a workout is likely when it provides the most benefit.