Are Sports Drinks Actually Beneficial?

Drinking A Sports DrinkFor quite a long time we have been bombarded with advertisements for Gatorade, Powerade and similar sports drinks. Claiming to give you the upper hand, because they are packed full of electrolytes.

But how many of us actually know what an electrolyte is? In the simplest terms, with reference to sports drinks, they are simply the added salt. This allows for the substance to become eletrically conductive, which the body does need order to send signals to and from the brain.

Does that mean that added sodium in the drinks will allow us to perform better? Yes, but not in the manor they want us to believe they do, according to Wired Science’s article on How To Drink Gatorade

it turns out that sugary sports drinks (like Gatorade, Powerade, VitaminWater, etc.) do generate significant performance benefits. It’s just that these benefits have little to do with the replenishment of lost electrolytes. And that’s why we seem to get the biggest benefits from these expensive liquids when we spit them out.

Let’s begin with a clever 2009 experiment conducted by scientists at the University of Birmingham, in which eight elite cyclists performed a series of time trials in the lab. The goal was to max out their levels of effort, to have the cyclists pedal as fast as possible for as long as possible.

The experiment itself consisted of two different conditions. In the first condition, the cyclists rinsed their mouth for ten seconds with a sugary sports drink before spitting it out. In the second condition, the cyclists gargled a diet drink sweetened with fake sugar instead. Although both liquids tasted about the same, only one contained calories.

Here’s where things get interesting: cyclists gargling with real sugar performed significantly better than those gargling with saccharin. The differences were especially pronounced during the final time trials, with the calorie crowd consistently putting out between 3-7 percent more effort.

How could merely rinsing the mouth with Gatorade make us perform better? After all, we’ve been trained by decades of sports drink commercials to assume that we actually need to swallow the stuff, that the benefits depend on getting those precious electrolytes into our bloodstream. But the commercials are lying: a series of follow-up experiments demonstrated that the cyclists actually performed better when they just gargled with the sugary drink. (Apparently, having several ounces of liquid sloshing around the belly isn’t ideal for intense physical activities.) Tasting energy was more important than ingesting energy.

To understand the mechanisms behind this peculiar gargling effect, the neuroscientists then had the cyclists swish around drinks made with real sugar and saccharin in a brain scanner. Although the athletes couldn’t reliably tell the difference between the two, their brain showed much higher levels of activation in reward areas, such as the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex, when given the drink made with real sugar. According to the researchers, this is because the human mouth contains carbohydrate receptors that respond to foods independently of their taste. Once a hint of carbohydrate is detected, these receptors immediately send a sensory report to the brain, telling it to expect a lovely rush of calories. Nothing has been swallowed, but that doesn’t matter: The sugar still makes us happy.

There are two lessons here. The first is that Gatorade is a waste of money. If you really want to improve performance, gargle with something that actually tastes good, since it was the activation of reward areas that allowed the cyclists to exert maximum performance.

The second lesson has to do with the variables underlying peak effort. In general, we associate high levels of effort with high levels of pain, which is why we assume that the hardest working athletes are also the most serious. These are the runners locked in a grimace, or those body builders letting out guttural grunts, or those cyclists on the Tour de France who look like they’re about to cry.
But maybe that’s exactly backwards. After all, the lesson of those cyclists tasting sugar water is that their endurance was improved by a fleeting sense of delight. The pleasure drowned out their pain, helping to compensate for the burning lactic acid in their legs. Even though they couldn’t explain this pleasure, it’s what allowed them to work so hard, pedaling faster than those sad souls gargling with fake sugar. While it’s still unclear how levels of pleasure modulate levels of effort, the scientists endorse the “Central Governor Model,” in which bodily fatigue is registered as the total absence of enjoyment. In other words, we only know we can’t give anymore when our reward areas go silent. Instead of enjoying the physical activity, we notice every ache and pain. And then we give up.

And that is why, the next time I play pick-up basketball or go for a long run, I won’t drink a bottle of gross blue Gatorade. Instead, I’ll be gargling with ice cream.

So while actually undertaking strenuous physical activity, The consumption is less rewarding that a quick mouth wetting swish & spit. Some of the benefits, however, do come from drinking the elecrolytes post working out, in order to replenish the fluids and salts that you lost through sweating. Sports Drinks, however, often actually contain as many calories as a can of soda. So For the money, if you are serious about training, it would be more beneficial to grab a recovery formula, which will not only give you the electrolytes but amino acids and other vitamins that your body needs to repair the muscles you have just destroyed!


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