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Sports drinks: playing with your brain

Comments (6)
By Peter Hadzipetros

Athletes – elite and weekend warrior alike – are always looking for a competitive edge. Even legal ones.

They'll fiddle with their diets. Take supplements. And take in sports drinks.

Two years ago, the American College of Sports Medicine issued revised guidelines on how much fluid you need to take in while exercising.

The bottom line was: it varies. But it did note that if you're exercising for more than an hour, you need to do more than just replace the fluid you're losing. You also need to replace electrolytes and take in carbohydrates to fuel your muscles. Don't do it and you run the risk of running out of gas or – as marathon runners will say – hitting the wall.

It's big business selling sports drinks. Worldwide sales approached $30 billion in 2007, according to a report from Zenith International, a company that provides research on the beverage industry. That's 1.8 litres of sports drink for every person on the planet.

The market is expected to grow by a third by 2012, taking per capita annual consumption to 2.3 litres.

There have been concerns that the stuff is contributing a growing obesity epidemic. Sports drinks can pack a lot of sugar and a lot of calories — and they can be rough on your teeth.

You see vats of the stuff from the comfort of your couch, while you're watching pro football, hockey and baseball. You'll see thousands of discarded cups of some kind of "ade" whenever a marathon or other road race winds its way through your neighbourhood.

While scientists have known for a long time that these drinks do help athletes, they weren't sure how they worked. A new study suggests the key might be mind games.

The research – published in the April 2009 issue of the Journal of Physiology – found that performance in endurance athletes was boosted not only from sugary drinks but also from drinks that contained a tasteless carbohydrate. And it didn't matter whether athletes swallowed the drink or spat it out.

The researchers prepared drinks that contained either glucose (a sugar), maltodextrin (a tasteless carbohydrate) or neither. They added artificial sweeteners until they all tasted the same. They asked groups of endurance athletes to complete a challenging time-trial, during which they rinsed their mouths with one of the three drinks.

Athletes given the glucose or maltodextrin drinks outperformed those on "disguised" water by up to three per cent. They were able to work harder even though they didn't feel like they were.

The researchers suggest that as-yet unidentified receptors in the mouth send signals to your brain that then tell your body that you can keep working hard.

The researchers monitored the athletes' brain activity and found that both glucose and maltodextrin triggered specific areas of the brain associated with reward or pleasure, while the artificial sweetener did not.

The brain was telling the body "you're not working as hard as you think, so keep going."

The study is the latest in a string that suggest it is not the muscles, heart or lungs that do you in over the long run, but the brain — based on the information it receives from the body.

Kind of like what Yogi Berra once said about baseball, although it's especially relevant to endurance sports: [It's] 90 per cent mental — the other half is physical.

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Comments (6)

cgf

Bath

Water, Water, Water

Posted September 24, 2009 12:55 PM

toomanycrayons

Ontario

"Is there actually a compelling reason to buy sports drinks, or are we better off with water, juice, and a banana?"—Paul Simmons

I'm a cyclist. I've tried most of the drinks. I have two criteria.

1) Do I/will I drink it often—every 10-15 mins?

2) Do I get gas or throw up?

Recently the best has been Gatorade's Rain Berry favour @.$0.99 on sale. It has the added benefit of looking like water, so it goes with my bike.

Well, this is all about vanity, isn't it?

And, anything tastes better than "bottle" especially after a few hours at 30+ degrees. Mixes make my teeth ache as well.

It doesn't freeze as easily in the winter either—salts and sugars?. It's rough when you have to gnaw at your fluids.

Posted June 8, 2009 08:52 PM

Adam Williamson

Paul: most sports drinks actually contain less sugar and fewer calories than an equivalent amount of juice. Juice is 'healthy' because of the good stuff that's in it, it's not 'healthy' because it's low in sugar or calories. Read the nutrition information on the back of a bottle of juice and a bottle of *ade, and you'll see what I mean. Fruit juice isn't a great choice to drink while exercising, because you need to ingest a lot of it to get the required amount of water, and that'll get you rather too much sugar. Fruit juice is best drunk in small quantities as a regular with-meals drink. It also doesn't contain any of the electrolytes that sports drinks go on about. Whether they provide any benefit is a bit of an open question (this is interesting research discussed in this article), but if you think they do, then fruit juice isn't going to do it for you.

It's also not so easy to buy fruit juice that isn't brought to you by a huge corporation, unless you buy local organic stuff. The companies that bring you supermarket juice are as big as the ones that bring you sports drinks.

I suspect the problem with *ade is people drinking them while not actually exercising (maybe they figure that way they get half the benefit of exercising!) Interesting that Gatorade recently brought out a drink called 'G2' which is designed to give you that same artificial taste with almost no sugar (or minerals, for that matter), advertised for 'athletes' to drink while not actually working out. I don't know who'd ever buy that stuff.

For Paul and KG - you can actually buy tubs of *ade powder which you reconstitute with water, for substantially less than the cost of buying lots of bottles of the stuff, and that's much more 'environmentally-friendly' packaging (takes up a lot less space and packaging material, and it comes in a cardboard cylinder). It's probably still a bit more expensive than cheap powder drink mix + sugar, but tastes marginally better. I buy that stuff.

Posted May 11, 2009 12:31 PM

johnny longsleeves

Chocolate milk is the new *ADE

Posted April 23, 2009 11:32 AM

kaptain gonzo

Fascinating. I still have to read the report in detail, thanks for the link. This reminds me of the placebo effect for medication. One sugar pill is good, two work better - go figure.

I find that a cheap drink flavour packet and a bunch of sugar plus a pinch of salt in water works great and is much cheaper than any store bought *-ADE. This only reinforces my thought that most of the sports drinks are just a sham.

Posted April 20, 2009 03:35 PM

Paul Simmons

This is an interesting study because it may help to explain why water isn't that satisfying after you have been working out for a while.

I have a question that seems like an obvious one, but which has not been answered in the half-dozen articles that claim to investigate sports drinks: Is there anything to recommend one of the brand-name sports drinks over, say, a mixture of 50% water and 50% apple or orange juice?

I can think of at least a dozen reasons why I don't want to buy sports drinks (food colouring, too much sugar, bad value, don't want to give money to a huge corporation, environmentally-unfriendly packaging, stupid advertising, unknown origin, etc.) and only one reason to buy them (replace lost water, electrolytes, and provide energy). Is there actually a compelling reason to buy sports drinks, or are we better off with water, juice, and a banana?

Posted April 20, 2009 02:43 PM

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About the Author

Peter HadzipetrosPeter Hadzipetros is a producer for the Consumer and Health sites of CBC News Online. Until he got off the couch and got into long distance running a few years ago, he was a net importer of calories.

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