Why Bananas Are Better Than Sports Drinks

Bananas have the extra benefit of working like a painkiller after exercise. LanaSweet/Shutterstock

At the end of a race, you'll often see runners reaching for bananas to replenish their tired bodies. Although weekend warriors might be more likely to reach for a sports drink, serious athletes know there are better alternatives.

And a new study from Appalachian State University offers proof that bananas may be a better choice than sports drinks after exercise.

Researchers analyzed the blood of 20 competitive cyclists after they were given either water and bananas, water only, or a 6 percent sugar beverage (which is similar to a sports drink) every 15 minutes during a 47-mile (75-kilometer) bike ride.

The study found that the carbohydrates in bananas work as well as sports drinks to fuel athletes and help them recover after exertion. But the researchers found an additional benefit. Bananas also provide greater anti-inflammatory benefits than sports drinks. They help reduce pain and swelling, mimicking how ibuprofen works in the body.

"Consuming bananas with water during exercise has several advantages for athletes and fitness enthusiasts above those linked to regular sports drinks, including a stronger anti-inflammatory effect, better nutrition and improved metabolic recovery," study author Dr. David Nieman, director of the Appalachian State University’s Human Performance Laboratory, said in a statement.

"Within an exercise context, banana metabolites that increase in the blood following ingestion have a similar effect to aspirin or ibuprofen that inhibits COX-2 activity. This makes bananas close to the perfect athletic food."

Although ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) help athletes with post-exercise pain, they are often discouraged because they can cause cell damage that encourages inflammation, Nieman tells Men's Health.

"For this reason, we tell athletes not to take them," he says. "To our pleasant surprise, we found something natural in bananas is working like [these painkillers] but without the risks."

More nutrients than sports drinks

bunches of bananas at finish line
Bunches of bananas await runners on the finish line of the Bath + Bristol Marathon in England. Health Gauge/flickr

Sports drinks are still an option, but Nieman and his team believe bananas offer more.

"There’s no question that sports drinks work, but when you look at bananas, the sugar profile is almost the same," he explains. "But bananas also have other nutrients — vitamin C and [vitamin] B6 and fiber and these unique metabolites — that you don’t get with a sports drink."

He suggests eating half a banana before or midway through your workout and the other half when you're finished. Drink it with plain water instead of a sports drink.

Next up, the research team is looking at other fruits as exercise companions.

"We’re starting to look at blueberries, because we think with bananas they might work even better," Nieman says. "The future of sports nutrition is going to be fruit phytochemicals."

The study, which was published in the journal PLOS One, was partially funded by the Dole Nutrition Institute, which is the same company as Dole Foods, which sells bananas. Dole had no role in the study's design or execution.