Gives You Wings? More Like Slows You Down

A new study reveals that energy drinks can hinder athletic performance, but does hard science stand a chance against aggressive marketing and the immense popularity of beverages such as Red Bull?

Ilan Goldman
Ilan Goldman
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Ilan Goldman
Ilan Goldman

Several weeks ago, during a routine interview with high jumper Niki Palli, I couldn't help but notice that before every attempt to jump, he took a sip from an energy drink. This was part of his ritual, and probably helped him clear 2.17 meters, and regain some of the confidence he seemed to have lost in recent years, since his injury.

"I really don't believe it enhances my performance," Palli said of the drink, "I simply have a habit of taking a sip - mostly because it tastes good."

A new study recently published in Nutrients, an academic nutrition journal, supports Palli's belief, at least when it comes to the performances of endurance athletes consuming the caffeine-rich drinks. According to the study, "consumption of energy drinks does not improve the performance of trained runners."

The study examined performance of athletes who were asked to run 5 kilometers one hour after consuming two different brands of energy drinks. The findings, published on June 6th, managed to unsettle diehard supporters of caffeine, which has long been considered among athletes as a performance enhancer.

The researchers examined the performances of six runners with similar results, all amateurs who, at their peak, could run 5 kilometers in 15 minutes. They were requested to participate in three 5 kilometer time trials on a treadmill. In the first time trial they consumed a standard Red Bull can consisting of 250 mg including 80 mg of caffeine; in the second they consumed an identically sized can of Guayaki Yerba Mate – a south American tea based on Yerba Mate leaves - containing 140 mg of caffeine; and in the third, a drink resembling the taste of Red Bull, but caffeine free. According to the researchers, the serving size was selected "to mimic real world scenarios," since runners often consume a can of energy drinks before practice or a competition.

The results were surprising. The fastest average time, 17:26 minutes, was recorded after consuming the caffeine-free drink. The slowest average time, 17:51 was achieved by the athletes after consuming the Yerba Mate can, which includes more caffeine than a cup of black coffee. After drinking Red Bull the average result was 17:33 minutes.

"An improvement of results following consumption of energy drinks has never been proven," says Ron Golan. a sport's physician and physiologist. "This powerful shot of caffeine and sugar might cause problematic side effects such as irregular heartbeats, rising blood pressure and tension, and might, ultimately, might lead to weaker results." Golan argues that today most dieticians believe that caffeine-enriched energy drinks are superfluous. "The belief that they enhance performances is due only to aggressive marketing and branding," he adds.

The place of caffeine in sports culture seems to be firm. When the riders of Team Sky, competing in the Tour de France were asked before the race took off, what item they would never agree to give up on in their mobile kitchen, most replied without hesitation it would have to be the coffee maker. They're not alone. In a 2005 survey among participants of the Iron Man contest held in Hawaii, 73 percent of the athletes said they believed that coffee enhanced their performance. Even here in Israel we are witnessing, in the past two years, black coffee stands at almost every race or marathon. The idea that caffeine does enhance performances resulted from dozens of studies published in recent years.

This, perhaps, contributed to the immense growth of the U.S. energy drink industry, transforming it to a monster yielding 6.7 billion dollars every year. The only problem, as all studies point out, is that the benefits of caffeine can hardly be felt as long as it is mixed with controversial substances such as Taurine, Yerba mate and immense amounts of sugar, hindering the process of absorption in the body.

"The data concerning the possible effects of Yerba Mate prove unequivocally that the drink includes ingredients that halt the positive effects of caffeine," says Mark Schubert, one of the authors of the study. Another study, published last year in Nutrition Reviews, determined that apart from caffeine, there is no established proof that the rest of the ingredients in the energy drinks do, indeed, enhance performances.

"I know that the study isn't as large and comprehensive as we would like, but if we succeeded in raising the awareness of athletes that energy drinks manufacturers are manipulating them, then there's nothing wrong with that," Schubert added.

Israeli high jumper Niki Palli. Credit: Nir Keidar

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