Sunday, August 7, 2022

Are Sports Drinks Overhyped?

My patient was asking me what I fuel myself with for my weekly Saturday bike rides. He knows I usually ride between 70-90 km. He was shocked when I said that I only bring a banana and a bottle of water with a slice of lemon for taste. 

Perhaps he had been influenced by social media and advertisements, and felt that hydrogels, superstarch, theanine, isotonics and even coconut water packed with potassium were better for absorbing carbohydrates into our system while exercising.

Perhaps some of the latest choices mentioned earlier may give an extremely small edge. Do they perk you up in the morning, help you metabolize energy, increase your focus and 'protect' your body as they claim? Especially since none of them are solidly backed by research. Will you go and order the latest offerings? 

I've written before that sports drinks definitely cannot replace your sodium levels during exercise. What it can definitely do is to provide you with some carbohydrates for fuel during prolonged (longer than 90 minutes) exercise to sustain your level of performance.

Results suggest that sports drinks can fuel you to maintain athletic performance. In the article referenced below, the authors wanted to know if a pre-exercise meal affects sports drink effectiveness. The subjects (cyclists) rode 105 minutes at lactate threshold followed by a 10 km time trial under 4 conditions. No breakfast before the ride with a placebo sports drink. No breakfast with a real sports drinkBreakfast with a placebo sports drink and breakfast with a real sports drink.

The breakfast the riders had were consumed 3 hours before the exercise. It had 824 calories, consisting of two thirds conbohydrates. The real sports drink had 8 percent maltodextrin (works like glucose but has no taste) while the placebo was just artificially sweetened. The sports drink was consumed every 15 minutes during the first 105 minutes ride and halfway mark of the 10 km time trial. 

Those who had the real sports drink with breakfast managed 198 watts in the time trial, those without 197 watts, not much difference. Strangely enough the results did not give any boost to the cyclists who fasted (no breakfast). I would have thought that the sports drink would help those who did not eat breakfast, ride better. Other studies did find a difference. Using the real sports drink helped with or without breakfast

There was definitely a negative effect for those who skipped breakfast without the real sports drink. With breakfast but no sports drink the cyclists managed 173 watts, with no breakfast, no sports drink it was 154 watts. They also had the highest rate of perceived exertion.

Note that at the start of the time trial, those who had breakfast with placebo drinks kept up with those with breakfast and real sports drink. As the time trial progressed and fuel stores were used up, those without the real sports drink fell farther and farther behind since their placebo drink failed to fuel them. 

This study shows that consuming carbohydrates during prolonged exercise definitely makes a difference. What I liked about the study was that the subjects did not know if their sports drink was real or placebo. The time trial started only after 105 mins, long enough for carbohydrate stores to be depleted. There was also no funding (from the sports drinks industry) for this study, so less chance of any bias.

If you are out racing or training for a few hours or more, commercial sports drinks aren't the only option. Neither is hydrogel, superstarch or any of the latest offers. Many sports drink companies may advertise their specialized formulations, but the 3 basic ingredients needed are watersugar and salt. Beyond these 3 ingredients the science gets a lot weaker. 

Many triathletes drink flat Coke (see picture below) in the Ironman events and eat bananas or dried figs. I'll usually just have a banana, dried raisins or dates. Just make sure you have something to suit your palate. Oh! And remember not to skip breakfast.


Leari SK, Ghiarone T, Silva-Cavalcante MD et al (2019). Cycling Time Trial Performance Is Improved By Carbohydrate Ingestion During Exercise Regardless Of A Fed Or Fasted State. Scan J Med Sci Sp. 29(5): 651-662 DOI: 10.1111/sms.13393.

You can the dark Coke stains on the front Mark Allen's top after beating Dave Scott after 6 attempts and finally winning at the 1989 Hawaii Ironman. 

*Picture taken from my book Ironwar by Mark Fitzgerald, Velopress 201.

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