Sport Drink Facts and Fictions
Commercial sports drinks make many claims, such as giving athletes ‘wings’ (Red Bull GmbH, n.d.), “Seizing Every Advantage” (PepsiCo, 2013), or “Go Stronger for Longer” (Coca Cola Co., 2013). Red Bull’s Energy Drink contains 320 mg of caffeine and 110g (11%) of sucrose and glucose per liter (Red Bull GmbH, n.d.). Gatorade Thirst Quencher contains 58.3 g (5.8%) of sucrose and dextrose per liter of beverage (PepsiCo., 2013) and Powerade contains 55.6 g (5.6%) of the artificial sweetener sucralose in the same volume (Coca Cola Co., 2013). This report will review what is known about caffeine and carbohydrate supplementation during intense physical exercise by reviewing three recent empirical studies addressing this issue.
Clarke et al. (2012)
Purpose: Both Red Bull’s Energy Drink (Red Bull GmbH, n.d.) and Gatorade (Coca Cola Co., 2013) incorporate two different sugars into their drinks, which is probably based on research showing a sugar mix is absorbed through the gut faster than a single sugar (reviewed by Sawka et al., 2007). Clarke and colleagues (2012) tested this theory in well-conditioned soccer players who engaged in intense physical activity for 90 minutes. Methods: 11 male university soccer players between 25 and 29 years of age were enrolled in the study. After conducting experiments to establish baseline measurements, the soccer players engaged in a soccer treadmill simulation in an environmental chamber. Blood was drawn before the start of physical activity, after 45 minutes of activity (halftime), and at the end of another 45 minute soccer simulation task. The energy drinks were designed to taste exactly the same (blinded), except one had no carbohydrates (placebo), and the other two had glucose alone or glucose plus fructose. A total volume of 1.37 L. Of beverage was consumed at 6 equal intervals between time 0 and 75 minutes into the soccer simulation. Total carbohydrates consumed were 90.4 g or about 1 g per minute. Although a number of different metabolic measurements were taken, the most relevant to performance was an exercise-to-exhaustion treadmill test completed after the soccer simulation. Results: There was significant variability between participants in time-to-exhaustion scores, but were generally consistent for each individual whether consuming placebo, glucose, or glucose plus fructose. Statistically, there was no difference in time to exhaustion for the three drink formulations (p > 0.05); however, the high inter-individual variability masked a real effect. Soccer players consuming glucose did better compared to placebo and those consuming the sugar mix did better than those consuming glucose alone. Conclusions: Although the study was double-blinded to the sugar content of the drink mix, it could not be randomized because each athlete completed a session for each of the three conditions. In addition, the glucose plus fructose combination was the only sugar combination tested. The sample size was small and the use of a placebo was an appropriate control. The generalizability of the findings is very limited and would be relevant only to young, male, and very fit soccer players running on treadmills. Despite these limitations, these results are consistent with previous studies showing a slight, but significant improvement in athletic performance when consuming carbohydrates during prolonged exercise; an effect that was enhanced when more than one sugar was ingested.
Hulston and Jeukendrup (2008)
Purpose: Caffeine has been marketed as ergogenic and thus performance enhancing (Red Bull GmbH). Since carbohydrates were known to provide a measurable performance edge, Hulston and Jeukendrup (2008) examined the benefits of combining glucose supplementation with caffeine ingestion during intense physical exercise. Methods: The experimental subjects were 10 well-conditions endurance male cyclists between the ages of 20 and 34 who were caffeine users. The exercise task involved 105 minutes of steady state cycling at 62% VO2max on a stationary cycle, followed by a 45 minute time trial. The time trial consisted of completing a defined amount of work at their own pace. The ingestion of a placebo drink, glucose drink, or a glucose plus caffeine drink, was double-blinded and in a randomized order for each cyclist. These beverages were consumed only during the steady state phase of the exercise and in 15 minute intervals. Total volume consumed was 1.25 L, with or without 75 g (6.0%) glucose or 75 g glucose plus 375 mg of caffeine. A large number of metabolic measurements were made, but in terms of performance measures, the authors recorded heart rate, power output, and time-to-completion. Results: Compared to placebo (water), ingesting glucose are regular intervals during the steady state portion of the task significantly improved performance; however, the addition of caffeine did not improve performance significantly compared to glucose alone. Conclusions: The sample size was small and incompletely randomized. Another weakness in the study was the use of water as a placebo, which would not taste the same as the other two beverages. In addition, the cyclists were all caffeine users, so the effectiveness of caffeine would depend on how much caffeine the cyclists typically consumed. Despite these limitations the authors were able to show glucose supplementation increased performance by 4.6% compared to water alone. When caffeine and glucose were combined, the average performance improvement was 9.0%, but statistically the same as glucose alone. These results show that both glucose and caffeine are ergogenic in young, well-trained, male cyclists, but modestly so.
Skinner, Jenkins, Taaffe, Leveritt, and Coombes (2013)
Purpose: Skinner and colleagues (2013) make the assumption that caffeine is ergogenic and therefore focus on the effect of caffeine ingestion timing on performance. Methods: The study subjects were 14 highly-trained male cyclists between the ages of 26 and 36 that were tasked to complete a 40 km time trial on a stationary cycle. The main question being addressed was whether performance was enhanced when caffeine was consumed 1 hour before the start of the time trial or consumed so that peak serum caffeine levels were reached at the beginning of the time trial. Peak serum caffeine levels were reached 120 and 150 minutes post-ingestion for 12 and 2 subjects, respectively. Each participant consumed (blinded) either a caffeine-filled gelatin tablet or placebo after randomization. The average amount of caffeine consumed was 452 mg per study subject based on body weight. Results: The main performance measure was time to completion and both caffeine conditions were faster, but only caffeine ingested 1 hour before time trial was significantly (p < 0.002) faster (2.0% or 70.5 seconds) than placebo. In terms of best individual performance, nine of the subjects achieved their best time when consuming caffeine 1 hour before the time trial and five when serum caffeine levels peaked at the beginning of the time trial. Conclusions: This was a randomized, double-blinded study with a sample size sufficient to detect small effects. However, the issue of habitual caffeine use by the study subjects was not addressed except by forbidding caffeine use for two days prior to the time trial. In addition, the relevance of this study would be limited to young, male, well-conditioned cyclists. Despite these limitations, caffeine does provide a significant performance edge in well-trained athletes.
The above studies reveal that carbohydrate and caffeine supplementation before and during intense physical exercise in young, well-conditioned athletes provide a measurable performance benefit. While this small ergogenic effect may be important for athletes in competitive events, it is unclear whether the same benefits are available to recreational and thus less fit athletes. If not, then spending money on sports drinks makes no sense unless the taste encourages recreational athletes to hydrate better. Until recreational athletes become the focus of sports drink supplementation research, the claims by these manufacturers are more hype than substance. Water, at least for recreational athletes, remains the best sports drink.
Clarke, N.D., Campbell, I.T., Drust, B., Evans, L., Reilly, T., and Maclaren, D.P.M. (2012). The ingestion of combined carbohydrates does not alter metabolic responses or performance capacity during soccer-specific exercise in the heat compared to ingestion of a single carbohydrate. Journal of Sports Sciences, 30(7), 699-708.
Coca Cola Co. (2013). Powerade. Give your game some flavor. Powerade.com. Retrieved 3 Apr. 2013 from http://www.us.powerade.com/.
Hulston, Carl J. And Jeukendrup, Asker E. (2008). Substrate metabolism and exercise performance with caffeine and carbohydrate intake. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 40(12), 2096-2104.
PepsiCo. (2013). G-Series. O2 Perform. Hydration to help replace what you sweat out. Gatorade.com. Retrieved 2 Apr. 2013 from http://www.gatorade.com/default.aspx?WT.mc_id=RMCPC_Google_S_GatoradeBrandModified_BrandElectrolytes_gatoradeelectrolytesreplacement&#gseries?s=gatorade-g.
Red Bull GmbH. (n.d.). Wings when you need them. RedBull.com. Retrieved 3 Apr. 2013 from http://energydrink.redbull.com/red-bull-energy-drink#whatsinside.
Sawka, Michael N., Burke, Louise M., Eichner, E. Randy, Maughan, Ronald J., Montain, Scott J. And Stachenfield, Nina S. (2007). American College of Sports Medicine position stand: Exercise and fluid replacement. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39, 377-390.
Skinner, Tina L., Jenkins, David G., Taaffe, Dennis R., Leveritt, Michael D., and Coombes, Jeff S. (2013). Coinciding exercise with peak serum caffeine does not improve cycling performance. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 16, 54-59.
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