Can energy drinks really help athletes recoup after training?

EMU sports nutritionist finds most claims are bogus

by Pamela Young, Published May 16, 2012

Energy drinks are everywhere, lining grocery store shelves and littering the Internet. Whether in liquid or powder form, most promote their ability to provide a "pump" or "boost of energy."

But do these energy drinks really work? How legitimate are their claims? John Carbone, a sports nutritionist at Eastern Michigan University, remains extremely skeptical.

"I've collected supplemental samples and found that most of these claims are garbage," Carbone says. "Many of these supplements are targeted to guys who are lifting weights regularly. There is little science to support most of their claims and even those that have a scientific basis tend to overreach beyond the scope of available studies."

For example, Carbone, an assistant professor at Eastern, showed his students one sample that claims that after use, "prickly skin confirms successful DNA mutation."

Carbone says not only is it absurd for a nutritional supplement to be affecting DNA integrity, but it would be very worrisome, if true, as it relates to cancer risk.

Energy drinks first appeared in 1929, when a British hospital offered patients the drink Lucozade to help with recovery.  By the 1980s, such products were remarketed as energy drinks. Energy "boosters" brought in nearly $51 billion in 2011 and the market is expected to grow to $79.2 billion by 2016, according to BCC Research, a market analysis firm.

"Energy drinks are not the best way to go," Carbone says. "These products typically emphasize that energy is released or manufactured due to a special blend of vitamins and other ingredients, when any energy rush should actually be attributed to the presence of caffeine and other stimulants."

Sports enthusiasts who exercise regularly should feed the body at the right time and with the right things, he says. Sports nutritionists call this proper application of nutrient timing "the synergy between nutrition and exercise."

"The type, intensity and duration of activity should determine how best to replenish the body," Carbone says. "For example, endurance athletes, like cyclists or swimmers, should typically be consuming around four grams of carbohydrates per one gram of protein in their post-workout meals in order to properly replenish and rebuild their muscles."

While a person is exercising or participating in sports, proper hydration also is important, according to Carbone. Depending on the duration of activity, water or sports drinks, which typically contain carbohydrates and electrolytes, are much better choices than so-called energy drinks.

A post-workout plan is crucial.  Carbone and co-investigators from Southern Connecticut State University and the University of Connecticut recently published an article in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise that suggests runners and other athletes might benefit from drinking chocolate milk immediately after training or a competition.

The key is to consume the milk, or any post-workout food or beverage, as soon as possible after the end of a workout, Carbone says.  This is the period known as the anabolic window, a time when the body is primed to rebuild and repair itself.

"Quite a few studies have shown that milk - particularly skim and chocolate milk - is a viable option as a sports drink," Carbone says. "Milk contains protein and its consumption post-exercise stimulates muscle synthesis, providing a boost to net muscle protein balance. It also contains carbohydrates for energy and many important vitamins and electrolytes, making it a great post-exercise beverage."






Pamela Young

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