Some of you may have caught wind of a mysterious "Secret Drink Mix" website that popped up a few months ago that confidently touts a formula that would "better hydrate our athletes and friends without making them sick".
As it turns out, Secret Drink Mix isn't just another 'latest and greatest' hydration concoction from some random group touting access to a lab. Instead, one of the main figures behind it is renowned physiologist Allen Lim, working in conjunction with a small group of friends and colleagues. These include fellow exercise physiologist PhD Stacy Sims from Stanford University, Lim's old college roommate Aaron Foster, former pro racer Ian MacGregor, photographer Jamie Kripke, and even B-Cycle co-founder Nate Kvamme.
According to Lim, Secret Drink Mix has already been successfully tested under top teams and athletes in such high-level events as the Tour de France, and now he's decided it's time to offer that same formula to the general public.
Simple is better
"My entire career in cycling I've always heard of one ubiquitous complaint, which was guys having bad stomachs at the end of the day – essentially gut rot," Lim told BikeRadar at his home in Boulder, Colorado. "Athletes would always complain of getting to the point where they're drinking so many sugary liquids and foods that their stomachs would just go bad. So back in 2008, I started experimenting a lot with drinks, trying to find something on the market that would solve that problem, and I literally couldn't find anything.
"Our sponsor's drink wasn't solving the problem, any drink that we bought wasn't solving the problem, so I ended up hacking together my own sports drink by taking a little bit of one company's product, some electrolytes from another company and mixing it together. I was also experimenting with a lot of different foods – real foods, from boiled potatoes to rice cakes – and trying to take a more all-natural approach to eating on the bicycle to help solve the problems."
Ultimately, Lim said, the Secret Drink Mix his group came up with was "extraordinarily simple". He wouldn't reveal to us the precise formula but the laundry list of ingredients is remarkably short: just a proprietary sucrose-glucose ratio in a lower-than-normal concentration, a generous but apparently unconventional mix of electrolytes, and freeze-dried fruit powder to provide just enough flavor – and that's about it.
"It's an all-natural, real food product – it's not a supplement," Lim said. "It has a real-food taste, we don't use any artificial colors and we don't use any 'natural or artificial flavors'. The whole concept of a natural flavor for me was kind of weird and obscure [look it up for yourself and you'll probably end up feeling the same way] so instead of going with these types of flavoring agents, we decided to go with 100 percent freeze-dried fruit powder. So our raspberry is flavored with just raspberry, our lemon-lime is flavored with 100 percent lemon and lime, etcetera."
"We have magnesium and calcium as two additional electrolytes [and] the calorie percentage is lower – it's a four percent solution so it's only about 80 calories per 500ml bottle," he continued. "Most sports drinks are 100 or 140 and some people try to put even more in there and try to use their drinks as food – that never works. What we were finding was that if we gave back to our athletes the amount of salt they needed in table salt form, their stomachs would get really irritated by the excess chloride ion so we use a totally different type of salt and different types of electrolytes."
The omission of food coloring had an unintended side benefit, according to Lim. Team mechanics reported that bikes were easier to clean after races. "They said the bikes were a hundred times easier to clean because the stuff just wiped off whereas with the regular stuff, all of that food coloring and dyes would muck up the frames and you'd basically have to scrub all of that crap off," he said. "I started thinking to myself, 'holy cow, if that's what's happening to the outside of a bicycle with a standard sports drink, what's happening inside of your stomach?'"
Also notable is the total lack of marketing spiel surrounding the ingredients. "All these companies try to overcomplicate the product," Lim said. "There are all of these buzzwords and ideas, and things that people wrongly think that if you just throw all of that into solution that all of a sudden, you become superhuman. That's just not the case.
"In many cases, simple is much, much better and real is much, much better. I find it humorous when I see all of these sports drinks that try to advertise or market themselves as these über-scientific formulas when in fact, yeah, there are scientific ideas but put together in the completely wrong way and without any account for how an athlete's stomach actually feels and how an athlete actually performs."
The ingredient list for Secret Drink Mix is surprisingly short but according to Allen Lim, simpler is better when it comes to sports drinks
Why sports drinks are better than water
So if simple is better, really simple must really be good, right? Not according to Lim. "[Sports drinks] exist because drinking a solution with a little bit of sugar and electrolytes in it – in particular sodium – is far better than drinking water alone," he said. "In fact, there's probably no situation where drinking water alone during exercise is beneficial. That's because you may be hydrating somebody but you're not keeping them in sodium balance. The real issue isn't just about hydration, it's not just about fuel – it's about maintaining proper sodium balance. Once that goes hayball, you're done."
Lim is careful to point out that while Secret Drink Mix does contain sugar, it isn't meant to be a primary source of on-bike calories. "You don't want to mix your calories with your drink," he said. "You want to eat real food to get your calories and then you want to use a solution with some sugar and enough salt to help push that fluid through and not inhibit it. If you have too much sugar in solution in the drink, what happens is that your body has to pull water out of itself into your small intestine to then bring that fluid in. In effect, you have to dehydrate yourself to rehydrate yourself and it ends up creating a big cluster."
What Lim refers to as a "big cluster" is that bloated feeling you get in your stomach when a particular drink or bar just doesn't agree with you. "When you feel that gut rot or that distended belly, it's because you're at a point where fluid is actually flowing into your gut and not flowing back into your body," Lim said. "The only way to take care of that is to dilute the crap out of it with more water and hope that it empties out. And maybe that's why a lot of pros always have one bottle of water on their bicycle and a sports drink when they just need a sports drink that actually works with more salt in it and less sugar."
Regardless, Lim theorizes that Secret Drink Mix might end up providing a significant source of calories merely by virtue of the fact that you can take in a lot of it. "Even though we don't say that this is a fuel, the paradox is that when you can actually drink more and it actually empties – and if you meet your hydration needs – you're probably going to get more calories in with a low-calorie drink than with a high-calorie drink," he said. "So if you have a drink with 200 calories but you can only stomach one bottle an hour – or less than that because your gut ends up rotting – you can take in two or two-and-a-half an hour of our product and end up getting the same or more calories in."
Secret Drink Mix certainly hasn't taken a conventional route to prominence, having been crafted behind the scenes as an alternative to products that Lim's athletes and teams were often paid to promote. In fact, even though it wouldn't take a lot of detective work to figure out who may or may not have been using the stuff, he still can't officially divulge most of Secret Drink Mix's high-profile adherents, since they weren't supposed to be using the stuff to begin with.
"A lot of the podiums that we've seen in racing this season have been results fueled by this product," he said. "We don't have the money to tell our story or say who's using our product while having respect for the athletes who are under contract to say they use another product. And that's been just fine with us for a long time because we were just out to help those guys out. But it's a really interesting notion to have a product and not be able to speak about it because you're building something that's a solution to what everyone else is promoting."
Even so, a couple of professional riders were still willing to provide some testimonial on what makes Secret Drink Mix different – as long as their names weren't revealed. "I think it has to do with guys who race three-week stage races or one-week stage races," said one top American grand tour rider who began using Lim's mix in early 2010. "Especially in hot weather where you go through a lot of bottles, it becomes an issue of gastric emptying and the load we put on our stomachs because we're eating so much and drinking so much. If you don't have a drink or food that passes through easily in large quantities, it becomes detrimental. What I've experienced with Secret Drink Mix is that it's the best – you can drink it all day long, it tastes great and it doesn't bloat you or gunk you up."
"The [sponsored] mix was always too strong, or too light, or not the right flavor, or too heavy – for whatever reason, it gave the guys various issues," said another US-based ProTeam rider who was with Lim from the early days of Secret Drink Mix. "So we just started playing around with different recipes. Allen and Stacy would make these concoctions, they'd make these bottles for us, and we'd just drink these bottles. Intermittently during rides, we'd use urinary strips to test pH balances, proteins, electrolytes, etcetera, and we had significant evidence that we were making a difference. We found that we were consistently more hydrated and we didn't have the same complaints on the bike. That's what I've been using for the past few years now."
That same rider is quick to point out that Lim and his team didn't hit the target without a lot of mistakes. "All the time we had something that was just gross, or nasty, or just off," he said. "It took a long time of trial and error to figure out what we wanted and sometimes we didn’t even know – sometimes it was just by accident. We would write down everything that went into that mix just in case we had one of those moments. Especially in the beginning there was some stuff that was nasty, but at the same time we had other bottles prepared just in case."
Allen Lim and his team clearly have approached this endeavour with a good deal of humor. "I'm Hydration, LLC"?
Moving from solution to business
Lim said he never intended for Secret Drink Mix to become a commercial product but as demand grew, so did the number of users who wanted Lim to start producing the stuff for real. "We were just trying to solve a problem at the time, help improve the performance of our athletes, and make sure they were properly hydrated," he said.
"Hydration is such an important issue because the minute you become dehydrated, your performance declines. While most of us are really conscious of bonking and worrying about getting enough calories in, the fact of the matter is that just like you can survive only a few days without water but weeks without food, performance is the same thing. You can go quite some time without eating but once you become dehydrated, it's game over."
Whereas once Secret Drink Mix was made in Lim's kitchen at his European base in Girona, Spain, now it's mixed in his kitchen in Boulder – well, sort of. Actually, the final batches are mixed at a local hardware store. "We started mixing the drink here in my kitchen but to get it properly mixed we'd premix small batches in little Tupperware bowls and then put those premixed batches into foodsafe paint buckets from McGuckin Hardware," he said.
"Once those buckets got full enough, we'd put some clean golf balls in there, take it back to McGuckin Hardware and then put it in their paint shakers and that's how we'd mix the product. Those paint buckets only cost about 14 bucks but if you buy them with a McGuckin's label you get a lifetime of free shaking!"
According to Lim, Secret Drink Mix will have a 'soft launch' in mid-September, followed by a more official debut around January, but there are still lots of things to figure out in the meantime – while he has a lot of experience in the professional road racing world, starting his own business is uncharted territory. "It's been a really interesting and fun project but I think my ignorance is protecting me in that I don't even know how much harder it's going to get," he said.
As of right now, Lim and his team don't even have an official name for the product (Secret Drink Mix was just a joke that took hold) so if you have any suggestions, feel free to send them their way. For now, interested buyers can only turn to the Secret Drink Mix web site for spotty details and an online order form.
Our own experience so far
Since talking with Lim a week ago, we've gone through about 20 servings of Secret Drink Mix through some of the hottest conditions of the Colorado summer and the results have been intriguing. It has a very light taste and is noticeably high in salt but is still palatable after baking in the sun for a while and spilled solution doesn't get overly syrupy or sticky in your hands.
No, Secret Drink Mix hasn't made us feel faster, more alert, more aero, more powerful, better looking or smarter [save the snarky comments, please]. But we have been able to down huge gulps of the stuff at significantly higher rates overall than with most other drinks, or even just water – easily up to two small bottles per hour, in fact. Not only did we not fall victim to that dreaded "gut rot" Lim speaks of but curiously, we haven't even felt like there was anything in our stomachs – a strange sensation for sure.
Ultimately, though, everyone's needs are different and some riders will invariably want some of those "über-scientific buzzwords". Currently, Secret Drink Mix is also pretty expensive at roughly US$1 per serving. But if its only consistent advantage is that it restores your fluids and electrolytes while offending virtually no one in the process, that's certainly interesting. Apparently the secret is now out.