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Feedzone Q&A: Do energy drinks have a place in athletes’ diets?

Do energy drinks have a place in cycling?

What do you think about the use of energy drinks and sports performance? It’s a pretty broad question as there are a million brands out there claiming all kinds of different benefits. I have noticed a few “new” drinks that tout a healthier brand of energy.

I have raced with products like Bing, Rockstar, Juices, GoFast and on occasion have noticed that my breathing rate accelerates, more than likely due to the caffeine? This is a side effect that I never noticed from drinking coffee. However, they do contain vitamins, some antioxidants, sodium, carbohydrates, and then stimulates like Taurine, Guarana, Ginseng … to name a few.

With the season turning to ‘cross I am thinking about shorter efforts and am therefore not quite as worried about the effects of dehydration on a long ride. It seems these products should be beneficial for a hard effort. Is it better to have a caffeine-infused gel, regular gel, sports drinks, or can an energy drink work as well or better?
— Frank

Hi Monique,
I am a 57-year-old who has cycled for sport and fitness for the past 25 years. Typically, I cycle three to four times weekly, 100-120 miles in season, 4-6 hours weekly off-season. This past year I have been using an energy drink pre-workout and have found that both my cycling workouts and weight training have improved with higher average speed for workouts and lower average heart rate, and increased weights and repetition to exhaustion. Is this scheme safe for long-term use? What are the risks involved in using energy drinks?

Thank you,
— Michael

Frank and Michael,
Energy drinks, often a mix of carbohydrate, caffeine, and “energy boosting” additives like guarana, B vitamins, and taurine, are definitely a popular choice among a wide cross-section of consumers with sales topping out at $5.4 billion in 2007.

Fluid and “energy” packaged together in one bottle clearly appeals to a cyclist focused on hydration, maintaining energy levels for work and training, and improving performance. But just how safe and effective are these drinks for enhancing performance?

It is important for cyclists to be educated on the proper use of these products as there is the potential for improper use, though this appears more likely to happen with the lifestyle and drinking habits associated with younger athletes and consumers. In fact, only this past October, a group of scientists and physicians petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ask for more regulation of these popular liquids.

Carbs during exercise?

For a cyclist, the first inclination is to contrast these drinks with other products that could be consumed before, during, and after exercise. Most of the beverages sold as energy drinks contain carbohydrate from glucose, sucrose, maltodextrins, and fructose, but in amounts ranging from 18 to 25g per 8 ounce (240 ml) serving.

In contrast, sports drinks range from 12 to 17g of carbohydrate per eight ounce serving. Most sports drinks are formulated to provide a 6 to 8 percent concentration of carbohydrate, which readily empties from your stomach during training. In contrast, energy drinks provide a 9 to 13-percent carbohydrate concentration, and subsequently have slower rates of stomach emptying.

Slower emptying usual means less effective hydration during exercise, when steady replacement of sweat losses is an important component to maintaining performance. Your sweat losses can still be significant during shorter rides, especially at higher intensities, and when you wear plenty of insulating clothing during cold weather training rides.

Some cyclists may even find that these higher carbohydrate concentrations can cause gastric distress, and certainly beverages whose main carbohydrate source is fructose should be avoided as this could easily lead to gastric upset. Similar stomach problems, slow emptying and impaired hydration could also occur if an energy drink is consumed within the 15 to 30 minutes immediately before exercise.

Carbs for recovery?

Depending on an energy drink’s carbohydrate content, it could be part of your recovery nutrition plan. However, keep in mind that you may need anywhere from 50 to over 80g of carbohydrate after a moderate to hard workout to begin the muscle glycogen replenishment process. If you need to rehydrate rapidly and have another workout in several hours, an energy drink may not promote the most rapid rehydration. Adding other food and fluid choices to the mix likely would also be needed to add up to the total amount of carbohydrate required after moderate to intense training. You may also need to add some protein to the recovery mix after a resistance training session. Sodium, found in sports drinks and recovery drinks also facilitate rehydration, and may be found in varying amounts in energy drinks.

Caffeine concerns

Of course caffeine is one the major reasons that athletes and consumers of all ages gravitate towards energy drinks, and it also the ingredient of most concern to health professionals because of the possibility of caffeine intoxication with overuse of these products.

Caffeine consumed before and during training does improve all types of performance. An advised dose is 2-3 mg per pound of body weight (4.5-6.5 mg/kg) in the hour before exercise. During exercise 0.7 mg per pound of weight (1.5 g/kg) can be consumed over at least a 60 to 120 minute period. There are even preliminary study results (that I wrote about in my Nov. 10 column) that caffeine may help the glycogen resynthesis process after hard exercise when consumed with carbohydrate for several hours after training. Caffeine likely utilizes a number of mechanisms to improve performance, but clearly a major mechanism is in providing a boost to the central nervous system and cognitive performance.

While caffeine is a performance enhancer, in certain situations, the caffeine intake from over-consumption of these products has raised alarm bells and driven home the advice once again that more is not always better. Typically, energy drinks provide 80 milligrams of caffeine per can, though this can vary greatly among brands, ranging from 50 to 145 milligrams per 8 ounce serving.

In contrast, 8 ounces of coffee may contain 100 milligrams (a very small cup when poured and measured and your daily coffee dose may be much higher — check your serving size), and 8 ounces of cola about 35 mg. A caffeine intake of up to 300 to 400 mg daily is considered safe for most adults, while children and adolescents should consume less than 100 mg daily. Like coffee and cola, many energy drink servings may provide more than 8 ounces, and total caffeine intakes often top out at 200 mg, though a few may even provide 500 mg of caffeine per can.

Some adolescents have suffered the ill effects of excess caffeine intake from over-consumption of these products, as have adults who have over consumed these drinks, particularly when they are mixed with alcohol. Both types of practices have resulted in some emergency room visits. The quantity of caffeine is not always stated on the label of these products, so contact manufacturers if there is a particular product that you regularly consume. Some teenage athletes have reported consuming several cans in the hours before athletic efforts.

There are many reasons not to overdue caffeine consumption, as some individuals may show signs of caffeine sensitivity. More common side effects can include rapid heart rate, jitteriness and tremors, sleep disturbances, and gastrointestinal upset. Persons with heart disease and pregnant women should also keep to a moderate caffeine intake.

Recently researchers from John Hopkins University petitioned the FDA to require that energy drinks state the product’s caffeine content on the label and to set a limit on the amount of caffeine allowed in the drink, as well as provide a warning label because of the risk posed for younger drinkers. Cyclists should pay attention to the caffeine content of the drink they regularly consume and keep consumption of caffeine to recommended and moderate levels. Caffeine sensitivity can vary from individual to individual, so be aware of symptoms that may occur from too much consumption as this a relative amount.

Those other ingrediants

Most energy drinks also contain at least one stimulant ingredient in addition to caffeine, such as guarana, yerba mate, and ginseng. Because of the wide variability in the food sources of these products, it is difficult to know the exact amount of stimulant product that each product may provide. Some of the herbal ingredients in these products could also potentially interact with prescribed medications. You also need to be sure that all the ingredients are legal and safe and properly stated on the label. Most experts agree that the addition of taurine and other amino acids, or vitamins and minerals, are of little benefit, if any, in improving performance. A few products may also contain small amounts of creatine, not reaching a dose that could improve performance. Others provide other less effective substances, like carnitine.

Can it help?

Essentially, there are many sports nutrition products available to support your training, performance, and recovery goals. Caffeine does improve performance when used properly in tested and recommended doses. However, energy drinks are too concentrated to be consumed with optimal results during training, and may contain many unnecessary additives not needed in a drink. The potential of over-consumption of these drinks is possible and has been observed in younger athletes and consumers. Your best bet is to use sports drinks properly in amounts that help to minimize sweat losses, provides carbohydrate in a gastronomically pleasant concentration, and sodium. Make sure that your recovery nutrition plan is individualized and also provides an adequate amount of carbohydrate, sodium, fluid, and also protein if appropriate.

If you do take caffeine for performance reasons, stick with tested and verified doses. Carbohydrate consumed in the one to two hours before training also goes a long way to improve performance. Also, chronic caffeine intake during the day should not take the place of adequate sleep and a balanced diet and lifestyle. The caffeine content of some popular beverages, including energy drinks, is outlined below. Stay within the recommended daily dose and pay attention to those coffee portions. Unlike cola and energy drinks, coffee and tea do provide other substances, such as antioxidants, that have some health benefits.

Beverage (portion): caffeine content (milligrams)
Brewed coffee (8 ounces): 95 (40 to 110) mg
Espresso (1 ounces): 64mg
Brewed Black tea (8 ounces): 47mg
Brewed Green Tea (8 ounces): 30-50mg
Coke (12 ounces): 35mg
Diet Coke (12 ounces): 47mg
Mountain Dew (12 ounces): 54mg
Red Bull (8.3 ounces): 76mg
Rockstar (16 ounces): 160mg
Full Throttle (16 ounces): 144mg
Monster (16 ounces): 160mg
Fixx (12 ounces): 500mg
Wired X505 (24 ounces): 505mg
Powergel, caffeinated (1 packet): 25-50mg
Gu, caffeinated (1 packet): 20mg

Good luck,
— Monique

Monique Ryan, MS, RD, LDN is a nationally recognized nutritionist with over 22 years of experience and is owner of Personal Nutrition Designs, a Chicago based nutrition consulting company that provides nutrition programs for endurance athletes across North America (www.moniqueryan.com).

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