Plant Waters vs. Sport Supplement Drinks: What Athletes Need to Know

Plant Waters vs. Sports Supplement Drinks: What Athletes Need to Know

By Amy Tribolini, MS, RD, LD

Americans spend over 5 billion dollars a year on electrolyte-containing sports drinks.  Liquid hydration for athletes is big business and recently there has been an increased demand for an alternative hydration known as plant water.  Some of the more commonly consumed plant waters include coconut water, maple water, and cactus water.  As the market increases its demand for natural, whole-food products, the availability of plant waters is skyrocketing and athletes are questioning how these products can benefit them.  Plant waters contain a unique profile of electrolytes, vitamins, minerals, and different plant chemicals, but how do they stack up against the typical sports supplement drinks? 

Coconut Water

If you have been to a grocery store lately, you have likely seen shelves stocked with coconut water.  Coconut water has become one of the most readily available and commonly purchased plant waters.

Coconut water comes from the fluid inside the coconut.  Its nutritional profile is high in potassium and magnesium, two of the minerals that are often depleted in endurance sports.  Its flavor is widely accepted and it is commonly tolerated when stomach malaise may have become a concern in a race. 

For athletes, one important consideration of consuming primarily coconut water is that it contains less carbohydrate and sodium than standard sport supplement drinks. 

If you were to consume coconut water in a race alongside a salted potato, you would likely hit your mark for carbohydrate, sodium, potassium, and magnesium.  For whole-food enthusiasts, this is a comparable, if not enhanced, whole food alternative to sports drinks.

Research backs the fact that coconut water is a great source of potassium, but its effectiveness at rehydrating athletes better than sports drinks is not fully proven.  While some research shows its effects are similar to sports drinks, some research flat out denies coconut water has performance benefits superior to water.   

Maple Water

Typically maple water is boiled down and used to create maple syrup, but more interest has been buzzing about its use as an electrolyte beverage.  Maple water is the water that has been filtered by the maple tree and roots.  Trying to advance beyond its breakfast stereotype, maple water boasts a large array of valuable minerals and electrolytes. 

Sport Supplement DrinksBecause of its plant-based origin, maple water is a solid source of phytonutrients.  One of the most prevalent nutrients in maple water is manganese.  Research shows that this nutrient is commonly deficient in the diet of athletes.  Manganese plays an important role in bone health, metabolism, and collagen building.  These functions are greatly valuable for endurance athletes in training and recovery. 

The downside to maple water is that many of the benefits are a bit watered down.  Compared to the high needs of endurance athletes for potassium, sodium, magnesium, and carbohydrate, maple water just doesn’t contain enough to replete all of these during or after high-intensity workouts.  Also, there isn’t enough research evaluating maple water’s effectiveness on athletic performance to confirm its place among the top sports drinks. 

Cactus Water

Historically speaking, cactus water is nothing new, but in recent years it has emerged with a new variety of health claims.  Cactus water comes primarily from the fruit of the prickly pear cactus and consumers describe it as having a berry taste that is light and refreshing.  While it is not especially high in carbohydrate or sodium, it does contain a significant amount of magnesium and potassium. Sport Supplement Drinks

Best of all, cactus water contains taurine.  Taurine is an amino acid naturally produced in the body.  This amino acid is especially beneficial to athletes because research shows it can boost oxygen and lead to a higher VO2 max.  While cactus water may not contain all of the electrolytes necessary for high-level training or recovery plans, its taurine content makes it a unique beverage to occasionally add into your routine.      


Since the human body is composed of approximately sixty-percent water, it is critical that high-performance athletes replace both the fluid and electrolytes they need for their body systems to function properly and recover well.  While plant waters have their own array of unique benefits, none of the plant waters discussed contain adequate carbohydrate, sodium, potassium, and magnesium to fully replete athletes after prolonged endurance training or events.  Plant waters may be best consumed in addition to other sport supplement drinks or whole foods.

One of the biggest appeals of choosing plant waters over sport supplement drinks comes more from what they are lacking, rather than what they contain.  Unlike man-made sport supplement drinks, plant waters are typically free from dyes, artificial sweeteners, and processed sugars.

About the Author:

Amy Tribolini currently works as both a Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Professor. She lives, trains, and competes as an ultra-runner out of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Amy specializes in fueling endurance athletes, athletic performance, and plant-based diets. Amy holds both a Bachelors Degree in Dietetics and a Masters Degree in Human Nutritional Science from the University of Wisconsin

Instagram- @ultrarunningdietitian

Email contact:


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Peart, D. J., Hensby, A., & Shaw, M. P. (2016). Coconut Water Does Not Improve Markers of Hydration During Sub-Maximal Exercise and Performance in a Subsequent Time Trial Compared to Water Alone. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 1-19.

Gei, K. -., Jester, I., Falke, W., Hamm, M., & Waag, K. -. (1994). The effect of a taurine-containing drink on performance in 10 endurance-athletes. Amino Acids, 7(1), 45-56.

Tesoriere, L., Fazzari, M., Allegra, M., & Livrea, M. A. (2005). Biothiols, Taurine, and Lipid-Soluble Antioxidants in the Edible Pulp of Sicilian Cactus Pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) Fruits and Changes of Bioactive Juice Components upon Industrial Processing. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 53(20), 7851-7855.

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