Do energy drinks enhance performance ? This is a question asked by many athletes around the world who compete in a variety of physically and mentally orientated tasks within their chosen sport. Outside of sport, many people, particularly the youth, also consume energy drinks on a daily basis as a type of short-term mood enhancer.
So, what about physical performance in sport? We all want to have the competitive edge, right? Do energy drinks enhance performance? Let’s take a look at the evidence.
Do energy drinks enhance performance?
Firstly, energy drinks should not be confused with sports drinks. Sports drinks contain carbohydrate and electrolytes that are specifically designed to improve exercise and sports performance. Examples include Gatorade, Powerade, and Powerbar. Energy drinks are an entirely different animal that provide a perception of wakefulness and high-energy.
So, let’s take a closer look at what’s actually inside an energy drink.
One of the main ingredients in energy drinks is caffeine. Caffeine is a central nervous stimulant and an ergogenic aid that has been shown to improve performance before and during exercise. One of the easiest ways to get this caffeine fix in a sporting setting is by drinking a caffeine-containing energy drink such as Monster, Rockstar or Red Bull. In addition to caffeine, these energy drinks normally contain substances such as vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, amino acids and taurine which that produce beneficial synergistic effects. Some energy drinks may also contain compounds like l-carnitine, glucuronolactone, ginseng, and guaraná.
The consumption of caffeine-containing energy drinks improves physical performance in a wide spectrum of sporting scenarios and in other performance parameters such as muscle strength and endurance measures. In clinical trials, these improvements in performance are evident even when placebo or control drinks are consumed by the study participants. For example, this study also shows that 3mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight in the form of an energy drink can increase muscular power in the half-squat and bench press one hour after ingestion. Since strength is a crucial performance parameter in the majority of sports, this could be extremely advantageous to many athletes.
Energy drinks have also been shown to improve sprint performance, strength training, and jump height. In a 2013 study, scientists wanted to find out if a commercially available caffeine-containing energy drink had a positive effect on physical performance in a women’s’ rugby sevens competition. The participants of the study ingested 3mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight in the form of an energy drink (e.g. 180mg of caffeine for a 60kg female) or the same drink containing no caffeine. One hour after ingestion, the participants were tested on a number of performance measures such as a 15-second maximal jump test, a 6×30 metre sprint test and three rugby sevens games. The results of the study showed;
- Increased power output in jump tests
- Increased running pace during rugby matches
- Increased sprint pace
How do energy drinks enhance performance?
So, how do energy drinks enhance performance? Although we know that caffeine-containing energy drinks improve performance in many different sporting environments, the increases in performance are not actually associated with the amount of caffeine contained in the drink. However, although low or high amounts of caffeine contained in energy drinks does not directly relate to subsequent performance increases, it is important to remember that energy drinks contain a cocktail of ingredients that may work together to provide us with a performance-enhancing ergogenic effect.
In this review, researchers analysed 34 studies and found that the quantity of another ingredient found in energy drinks – taurine – is directly related to performance both in its physiological effects and on the physical performance measures that were studied. When taurine is consumed in the form of an energy drink, scientists think that the increase in performance may be due to the effect that calcium has on fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibres, allowing them to generate more power. The taurine dosage in these energy drinks ranged from 71mg to 3105mg. Meanwhile, the amount of caffeine contained in the energy drinks used in these studies ranged between 40mg and 325mg. To put this into perspective, one shot of espresso from Costa contains 92mg of caffeine.
Again, it is important to remember that, when we consume energy drinks, we are ingesting with a mix of other ingredients as well as taurine such as carbohydrates and caffeine, so the researchers are still unsure what the effects of taurine alone are on performance.
The Negative Effects of Energy Drinks
It’s not all good! Long-term use of energy drinks has been linked to stress, anxiety, and depression. One possible explanation for undesirable mental health problems such as depression and anxiety is that long-term users of energy drinks tend to self-medicate in order to get a “quick-fix” or “pick me up”. This type of usage provides positive effects in the short-term (such as the ones we’ve already described) but can lead to negative long-term effects. The fact that students use caffeine as a coping mechanism during times of stress goes some way to support this.
Another possible explanation for the link to undesirable mental health problems is that sleep loss caused by energy drinks leads to fatigue which then leads to an increased use of energy drinks. In this way, the drinker falls into a vicious cycle and becomes dependent on the energy drink for energy and focus.
From analysing the research, it is evident that caffeine-containing energy drinks have the potential to significantly improve sporting performance when consumed approximately one hour before the physical activity. Energy drinks have been shown to improve muscular strength and endurance measures as well as muscular power measures such as jumping. They also improve performances in real sporting situations as a result of these improvements in performance measures.
However, the unwanted symptoms associated with long-term use such as anxiety, stress and depression may suggest that regular consumption is not advantageous. In addition, there may be less harmful or even natural alternatives which may offer similar benefits without the potential negative side-effects associated with energy drinks.
These alternatives will be reviewed in a separate post here on Viral Dreaming to give you the knowledge and power to travel, train and compete optimally.
More articles about nutrition for adventure travellers will be posted on our blog such as this one: ‘When should I eat carbs‘
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