Yes, protein in your sports drink is a good idea. But…

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.

5 thoughts on “Yes, protein in your sports drink is a good idea. But…

  1. Hey Kev, while you’re discussing Accelerade, what do think about their companion recovery product, Endurox? Beyond the protein/carb mix, it seems to make biochemical and physiological sense to have glutamine in there (which comprises 60% of free amino acid pools in skeletal muscle) to help rebuild muscle tears as well as vitamins C and E for aqueous radicals and lipid peroxidation products, respectively.
    I found a nice 2005 master’s thesis online from Tavis Piattoly at LSU (PDF) on a trial of glutamine alone in cyclists. Definitely appears to increase time to exhaustion and improve recovery.

  2. A few years ago I was experimenting with my own drinks and according to their labels, Accelerade is just about a 50% dilution of Endurox. They make a big deal of the 4:1 ratio, but I recall that Chris Carmichael was pushing 6:1. In any case, being the cheap bastard that I am, I will take concord grape juice and dilute it to about 40% (i.e., 1 part juice, 1.5 parts water, 20 to 25 oz. total), add a tablespoon of whey protein isolate and a healthy pinch of salt, and there it is: protein-spiked sports drink at around 6-8% concentration. Oh, and grape juice sugar is pretty high in glucose unlike some other juices.

  3. note however that the original Accelerade studies did not control for calories – the Accelerade has significantly more calories than the drinks they tested against. This resulted in an apparent in-competition performance boost which was trumpeted far and wide. Once controlled tests were done, the performance benefit disappeared:
    However this and other studies do show some recovery benefits with the protein included. For myself, I like to eat real actual food after a workout, which works just as well and quite possibly better than nutraceuticals.
    If no food is available, chocolate milk works well..

  4. The admixture of protein into recovery drinks reminds me that the traditional post-training recovery alimentation in my competitive days was a jam butty. I know Ron Hill (still going strong BTW) was a butty man and remember him saying he would have a double jam butty 20 mins or so before a long training run.
    I wonder what their carb:protein ratio is?

  5. Sorry – duff link in my post. If anyone’s interested, this is a report on Ron Hill having achieved his ambition of racing in 100 different countries by the time he reached 70.
    (They wouldn’t let him race in Kandahar, Afghanistan – boo hiss)
    And I also forgot to wish everyone Happy New Year and thank Dr Joan for the blog – so 3 bads already. 364 days to go.

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