Pouring water on sports drink health claims
The success of the energy drink industry is evident in runners clutching bright bottles but experts are questioning their use
THERE ARE MANY strange sights in the world of running but one of the daftest must be the beeline so many runners make for a Portaloo or the nearest back wall after just a few miles of the marathon.
Despite all the advice given about not over-imbibing in the hours before the start, it seems there are always runners who can’t resist downing fluids in unfeasible quantities. And since what goes in must come out, the answer to nature’s call ends up being a premature one.
Another odd sight is that of joggers, and walkers, in even short races trudging around the course with vials of lurid-coloured fluids held in their hands or stored in a belt. This in spite of the fact that nearly every race these days offers drinks of various hues to participants along the course.
Why would anyone carry more fluid than they had to, either in their bladder or in their hands, during a race unless they believed that hydration was paramount? I believe these phenomena demonstrate the now widely held belief that sports drinks significantly enhance performance and recovery.
Runners these days load up on fluids before, during and after their bursts of activity, treating the local 5km as though it were a trans-Saharan epic.
I always had my doubts about the fad for such drinks. It helped that a few sips of water suffices to take me 10 miles and more on the average temperate Irish day.
Yet even I started to feel inadequate as the drumbeat from the sports drinks industry grew louder and their scientific recommendations multiplied. All that talk about replacing electrolytes and boosting recovery started to seem convincing and it was hard to avoid the free samples so generously distributed at races.
Yet I also observed how the popularity of sports drinks spread from the elite athletic community to hack runners like myself.
Then I started noticing how many runners were consuming these high-sugar, high-salt concoctions regularly, and not just when exercising. Energy drinks had become a lifestyle choice, an overt signal by those consuming them that they were leading a healthy existence.
It was almost as if the consumption of sports drinks obviated the need for sport itself – a bit like wearing a tracksuit in the house. Except that tracksuits don’t contribute to the spread of obesity.
Doubting the propaganda about sports drinks was a lonely business, a bit like questioning the merits of the property boom during the Celtic Tiger years.
But then this summer, the British Medical Journal ran no fewer than seven articles attacking the industry.