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The Endurance Athlete’s Guide to Coconut Water

coconut to eat and drink

Dubbed “Mother Nature’s sports drink” by savvy marketers, coconut water is filling store shelves, and I’m seeing it in the gym and at yoga class. Some people swear by it, like it’s magical; even some pro athletes credit their success to this beverage.

Coconut water is a natural source of electrolytes, which means it could help you get hydrated better than water. Since it contains sugar, maybe you could use it instead of sports drinks.

But I have to wonder, is it really something special, or just another case of the power of advertising?

Let’s find the truth!

Where Does Coconut Water Come From?

Unlike other products with misleading names, coconut water is exactly that – water from inside a coconut.

When coconuts are young, they are full of water. You can buy a young coconut, punch a hole in it, stick a straw in there, and drink pure coconut water immediately. Sure, it takes some effort to punch the hole in the shell (that’s why you get yourself a coconut hole punch,) but there’s no extra processing required!

You have to get young coconuts, though. The ones that are still green. If you get the ripe ones (that look like brown cannonballs,) you won’t get any water out of it.

You can also buy coconut water at the store, because let’s face it, not everyone wants to spend their time punching holes in coconuts. Which is why big companies are extracting this water and bottling it for your convenience. And you can buy these packaged drinks at the local convenience store.

So there’s pure coconut water, and then there’s the bottled coconut water you find in the store. It’s not going to be exactly the same.

Also, don’t confuse coconut water with coconut milk. Coconut milk is made primarily from the coconut flesh, so it’s a thicker, fatty liquid that’s very different from what we’re talking about.

young coconut street vendor

Coconut Water Benefits

Why drink the water?

The #1 reason is that it’s a natural way to replenish electrolytes during and after workouts. Coconut water contains crucial electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and magnesium, which help keep you hydrated.

It also contains sugar, which is essential to fueling your body during workouts.

Here’s what you can expect to find in an 8oz serving:

46 calories
0g fat
9g carbs
3g fiber
6g sugars
2g protein
252mg sodium
600mg potassium
60mg magnesium
57mg calcium

*This data is from the USDA, and that’s if you get the water straight out of a coconut. The packaged beverages in the store are a little different, so be sure to read every label!

It’s tasty and refreshing!

Personally, I think the taste is the best part! It’s an interesting salty, sweet blend with just enough flavor to be enjoyable, while still being light and refreshing.

Less sugar than soda or fruit juice.

Coconut water contains much less sugar than regular sodas or fruit juice, so if you replace those types of drinks with coconut water, that’s a good thing!

Just be cautious because there are drinks like the “coconut + mango” ones, which add high-sugar fruit juice to the coconut water. They’re tasty, but they’re far higher in calories!

Coconut water is also touted as being fat-free, but so are all sports drinks and fruit juices! (I’m not sure what they’re trying to prove with that!)

More potassium than a banana.

Coconut water is so high in potassium! I’ve never seen anything so naturally high in potassium and this low in calories.

A large banana might contain 500mg potassium, and a large baked potato will contain double that, and while both are great foods, that’s an extra 100-300 calories (compared to just 50 in the coconut water.)

Try it as a hangover cure.

A lot of people use sports drinks or Pedialyte for hangover cures. Well, how about coconut water instead? I would think that it would taste better than artificially flavored sports drinks in that scenario.

It’s a natural alternative to sports drinks.

What are sports drinks? Flavored water with sugar and electrolytes. Well, that’s exactly what coconut water is. Sugar and electrolytes in one beverage, but it’s made in nature, not a lab. That’s pretty cool.

Note that it’s an alternative, not a direct replacement…

Coconut Water vs Sports Drinks (Like Gatorade)

The first thing we have to do is recognize that there are two different types of coconut water. There’s the pure, raw stuff you get out of a coconut yourself. Then there’s the bottled stuff you get at the store.

The raw coconut water is high in electrolytes (approximately 250mg sodium and 600mg potassium,) which is perfect, but it also contains too much fiber to be used as a sports drink. The bottled stuff has discarded the fiber, but also most of the sodium, which is critical to properly re-hydrating your body.

For comparison purposes, we’ll use Vita Coco coconut water as our example. An 8 ounce serving of Vita Coco contains 45 calories, 11 grams of sugar, 55mg sodium, and 470mg sodium.

Coconut Water vs Gatorade

An 8 ounce serving of Gatorade contains 60 calories, 16 grams of sugar, 120mg sodium, and 34mg potassium.

It’s a little higher in sugar and calories, but not by much. It has double the sodium, though! And in terms of hydration, sodium is more important than potassium. It’s critical.

Which means, as far as sports performance goes, Gatorade is the winner.

Coconut Water vs GU Brew

Now let’s consider something actually aimed at endurance athletes, like the GU Brew hydration drink mix. This incredibly delicious drink contains 70 calories, 18 grams carbs (9 grams sugar,) 250mg sodium, and 30mg potassium in a packet.

It has about the same sugar content, but contains more carbs, more calories, and nearly five times more sodium! Now that is a sports drink!

These real sports drinks, or even the low-cal electrolyte hydration beverages (Nuun for example,) are far higher in electrolytes per serving than Vita Coco.

So for serious endurance athletes, coconut water doesn’t cut it.

Yeah, we all know sports drinks are highly-processed, and they’re filled with artificial flavors and colorings. They’re fake. But by the time coconut water makes it to the store shelves, it might not be that much better!

If you absolutely love coconut water, you could add a pinch of sea salt or Himalayan pink salt to your coconut water to make it into more of an endurance drink. But there are so many amazing flavors of sports drinks now, and they’re probably cheaper than coconut water, they’re the obvious choice.

Don’t forget though – most of the time, plain water is fine. For most workouts under 90 minutes, it’s all you need. So save your money!

coconuts with straws

What The Research Says About Coconut Water

Does it really help you stay hydrated better than plain water or the traditional sports drinks?

Let’s see what the scientific studies say…

Bear in mind, the existing studies don’t tell us much.

One found that coconut water works as well as sports drinks to hydrate your body, but the test subjects preferred the taste of the sports drinks.

But there was another study that showed coconut water enhanced with sodium was as good as a sports drink. So which is it? Which works as well as a sports drink? Plain coconut water, or coconut water enhanced with sodium?

Is it really just a matter of taste preference?

Those studies don’t provide much useful info for me, but they do a good job of showing that the claims behind coconut water were mostly hype.

I did find this one study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. This one tested water vs sports drink vs coconut water to see which was better for rehydrating after running on the treadmill for an hour. And the testing was done on exercise-trained men.

Well, here’s their conclusion: “All tested beverages are capable of promoting rehydration and supporting subsequent exercise.”

No surprise there. However, there was one interesting finding hidden in the details. Subjects reported feeling more bloated and experienced greater stomach upset with the coconut water!

So in practical terms, coconut water was the worst choice!

And this wasn’t even the raw coconut water containing protein and fiber. This was VitaCoco!

So the sports drink must have had better osmolality or better ratios of key ingredients for better absorption. See, people take the food science for granted, but there’s a lot of work in these sports drinks! (Similarly, plain water isn’t getting enough credit!)

Popular Brands of Coconut Water

While fresh, raw coconut water is my preferred source, few people are realistically going to buy young coconuts, open them (don’t forget your CocoDrill,) and drain and strain the water inside. And when it comes to using it as a sports drink, you’re better off with the processed stuff anyway (since it doesn’t contain fiber.)

So, there are lots of brands to consider. Some are popular, and some you’ve probably never seen before. And some are definitely better than others.

Here are the main ones you’re likely to come across:

  • Vita Coco – Probably the most widely known brand, thanks to extensive marketing and celebrity endorsements. It’s coconut water with added fruit sugar and Vitamin C. VitaCoco.com
  • Zico – A brand owned by Coca-Cola, they focus on products with the longest shelf life, rather than the most natural products. Their drinks in Tetrapaks are pure coconut water, but be careful because their bottles are made with coconut water from concentrate and include natural flavors. Zico.com
  • Amy & Brian – They use nothing but young coconut water from Thai coconuts, which are naturally sweeter than others. This results in a great taste. AmyAndBrianNaturals.com
  • C2O – 100% pure coconut water with no additives. C2O-CocoWater.com
  • Munkijo – 100% organic coconut water sourced from the Philippines. No added sugar, no preservatives, and NEVER from concentrate. Munkijo.com
  • O.N.E. – Coconut water with natural flavor added. Company is owned by Pepsico. OneCoconutWater.com
  • Taste Nirvana – All natural coconut water with no additives. TasteNirvana.com
  • Coco Libre – Certified organic, but it’s made from concentrate and contains added flavors. CocoLibreOrganic.com
  • Harmless Harvest – Organic, 100% raw coconut water. Uses HPP processing rather than heat pasteurization to preserve nutrients. Sometimes turns pink when exposed to light. HarmlessHarvest.com

Now to figure out which one is the best…

How to Choose The Best Coconut Water

When picking one out of the crowd, we still want it to be as natural as possible. That means:

  • Not from concentrate
  • No preservatives
  • No artificial sweeteners
  • No added sugar
  • No artificial colors
  • No artificial flavors
  • Not heat pasteurized

Most brands listed above are made from pure coconut water and contain no added ingredients. There are only a couple that are made from concentrate, and a few that add extra flavorings and preservatives.

But just about every brand uses some sort of heat pasteurization process. Unfortunately, this will destroy most of the nutrients that are still present.

The only way around this is High Pressure Processing (HPP) which is a cold pasteurization technique designed to extend shelf life without wiping out all the nutrients. And there’s only brand I know of using this technique – Harmless Harvest.

Some coconut waters are certified organic, but that’s not a concern to me. Why? Well, remember that coconuts are sourced from other countries like Thailand. And these farms in Thailand probably aren’t going to care about getting “certified” as organic by the USDA, even if they use completely natural growing methods.

So, just because it doesn’t say “certified organic” on the label, doesn’t mean the product isn’t organic.

If you really want to dig down deeper into the intricacies of coconut water, talk to Vani Hari, better known as “The Food Babe,” who has the low down on all the brands.

Which one is the best?

Personally, if you’re concerned about getting the most healthy, natural coconut water, buy the coconut and drain it yourself on a nice summer afternoon. That’s the best coconut water for endurance athletes (and everyone else.)

For the bottled stuff, Harmless Harvest is the clear winner… but it’s prohibitively expensive at roughly $6 per bottle.

I’d recommend Amy & Brian Coconut Water as the most practical choice. At about $2.50 per can, it’s tasty, refreshing, convenient, and more affordable.

Coach Levi’s Final Verdict on Coconut Water

Coconut water is probably best for sedentary people who are addicted to sports drinks and fruit juice, and looking for a healthier alternative. It will be lower in calories (but still should be consumed in moderation.)

If you need serious sports drinks, you need serious sports drinks. If you’re an endurance athlete doing races and workouts 2+ hours long, that means you. Shop for stuff like GU Brew and Hammer Heed instead of VitaCoco. Otherwise, plain water is fine for shorter, moderate workouts where you can simply eat before and after.

 

Do you drink coconut water? Please share your experience in the comments!

 

Photo credits: Steven Depolo | Roberto Verzo | Roberto Verzo

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18 Comments
  1. Where does one find Harmless Harvest coconut water? Sheetz? Wal-Mart? Wegman’s?

  2. I see this at yoga class every time I go. I always noticeit because it’s a big tall can that almost but not really blends in with the stainless steel water bottles. “C2O” I can picture it clear as day. How do you feel about it?

  3. @Stacy

    Haha. Maybe you can find it over at Wegman’s. Maybe. Your best bet is Whole Foods though.

  4. @Karen

    I don’t know if this is a coincidence but that’s the brand I see most often at the yoga studio! C2O is good stuff. Do a taste test vs Amy & Brian and go with whichever you think tastes better. (Until C2O comes out with a cinnamon flavor though, I’ll be sticking with Amy & Brian 100%.)

  5. Coconut macaroons are delicious but high in calories. Coconut flesh and even coconut milk is high in fat and calories to. Coconut water on the other hand is somehow fat-free. Is this a fluke? The red-headed step child of the coconut family? Help me make sense of this please!

  6. @David78

    Mmmmmmm macaroons! Don’t get me started!

    It’s no fluke. It’s just the magic of plants. Much like animals, different parts are going to provide different nutrients. The water inside a coconut is simply water. Just because it touches a fatty portion of the flesh, doesn’t mean the water is going to absorb the fat. It all coexists and you can pick and choose what you want!

  7. I have been drinking coconut water for years! Vita Coco all the way! Even got my husband to drink it and he normally won’t drink anything but diet Pepsi!

    Everyone says c2o and Amy & Brian are way better, but I honestly don’t care for the raw coconut water taste. I want my Vita Coco!

  8. Soooo, there is a weekend in clearfield that i do three races (5k, 7 miler and a 5mile bicycle ride up a steep hill). All at balls to the walls pace, because there isn’t any other way to race haha! And after the last race I grab a coconut water and relax, best thing ever, do it! Haha

  9. @Kevin

    Now that is how you do a 3-day weekend! Race hard and recover hard!

  10. I drink only Amy & Brian- it’s refreshing, delicious and it’s inexpensive. That’s odd that people in the water vs. sports drinks vs. coconut water study experienced more bloating and it made their stomachs upset. It calms my stomach down a bit actually, and I have a lot of stomach problems on top of being gluten intolerant. Anyway, to each their own.

  11. You have some great information in this post! I used to drink gatorade (years ago..) and am so glad I made the switch over to coconut water.

  12. I had no idea coconut water has more potassium than a banana..very cool! Also didn’t know it was good for hangovers. Helpful post 🙂

  13. I need to try these for after cardio workouts. I am interested in trying Amy & Brian coconut water. $2.50 for a can isn’t bad at all, compared to $6 !!

  14. @Charliese

    Yeah, I found that a bit odd myself. I think a lot of it depends on when you’re drinking it and how much you’re drinking.

  15. I love Vani the Food Babe =) I have been trying to cut back to one cup of coffee a day the past few months, so whenever I need a little “Pick me up” I turn to coconut water- so good.

  16. Good article. I like coconut water but I never thought about using it for a recovery drink after a workout. I will have to give it a try.

  17. anyone know the pH level of the coco water? i’ve cut way back on the acidic drinks like gatorade after having dental problems. I use the coco water on cold weather rides for energy but it doesn’t go down as well in hot weather for some reason (unless well diluted).

    • @Zach

      I’ve never tested it myself, but I’ve heard the pH of coconut water is around 6. If true, it’s far from acidic!

      This study rates it at 5.4, which is much less acidic than Gatorade or Coca Cola.

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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Coach Levi is my favorite child and favorite cycling coach. I'd choose him over Christoper McCarmikael even. Did I mention that Levi can coach you to a healthier lifestyle where you look and feel your best?
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