One of the medical feeds I subscribe to included an article yesterday about the increased benefits endurance athletes enjoy when using a replacement drink containing a mixture of protein and carbohydates instead of one containing carbs alone (e.g., Gatorade, All-Sport, countless others).
I found this blurb (and the study itself) noteworthy for two reasons.
One, the article’s headline (“Protein Sports Drinks Proven To Give Best Performance”) and opening sentence (“Sports drinks containing protein are better at improving athletes’ performance”) are misleading. “Protein sports drink” suggests a tonic consisting primarily or even solely of amino acids, water, and maybe the usual complement of electrolytes. More importantly, while consuming a mixture of carbs and protein is beneficial in that it facilitates post-workout or post-competition muscle refueling, thereby allowing for a quicker return to full-scale training, this practice has not been shown to help athletes reach the finish line of a marathon of cycling race any sooner. This is no reason not to indulge, of course, but athletes should not be misled into thinking they are getting a performance boost in the usual sense of this and similar terms.
And two, not that reminders and getting the message out to ingenues are bad things, this is extremely old news. Accelerade, which contains a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein (the recent study used a 2:1 ratio) has been on the market since 2003 or so, and studies supporting the benefits of mixing in some protein with your sugar date back at least a dozen years. The physiology underlying the enhanced recovery afforded by the admixture involves a lower degree of in-exercise muscle catabolism (some muscle is ordinarily broken down during strenuous exercise and its proteins converted to glucose through transamination and other reactions) as well as increased absorption of fluid owing to two osmotic gradients in the intestine–one from carbs, one from amino acids–instead of the traditional one. By better staving off both muscle damage and dehydration, an athlete is far more likely to hit the ground running (or the pedals whirling) the next morning than had he or she relied solely on a sugar/water/’lytes mixture.
I myself never used drinks that included protein during my marathon days, which effectively ended in January 2005, around the time such preparations were becoming popular. In fact, I usually relied first and foremost on drinks I would bring to the race myself and have someone hand me at as close to 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 of the way through the 26.22-mile event. These beverages were usually not sports drinks at all, but generic fruit punch, which was free of electrolytes and much more concentrated than a sports drink (twice as much, in fact). I would supplement these 16- to 20-ounce chug-a-lugs with plain water at the official aid stations, which I reckoned not only kept me hydrated but diluted what I’d ingested from my private stash to a concentration in my stomach more suitable for rapid absorption. Whatever the case, folding late in my races was never one of my chief problems, so whatever I did seemed to suffice. Then again, 2 1/2 hours is really not that long a time to be out there, and one can get away with things like passing on electrolytes and not worrying so much about in-race muscle breakdown. The equation in a race like a 50-mile ultramarathon would have been different, but fortunately I have never been compelled to do anything that unwieldy, instead limiting my insane behaviors to more traditional, non-sporting modalities.