Do Energy Drinks Boost Sports Performance?

By Dan Peterson, TeamSnap's Sports Science Expert


What could be better for our over-scheduled, constantly on-the-go, sleepy kids than something called an “energy drink”? While brewing an extra pot of coffee for our young athletes seems weird, we seem to have latched on to this wildly popular beverage choice to go one step beyond regular soda. While the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) have recently issued warnings about their consumption, sales continue to climb. Now, a new Spanish study concludes that while energy drinks actually do improve sports performance, there are lingering negative effects.

Full of carbs and caffeine, energy drinks have exploded into a $7 billion industry which retailers love thanks to their higher prices and 40% margin. According to a CDC-sponsored 2011 Youth Styles Survey of 779 kids, aged 12 to 17, their preference for energy drinks was obvious. Overall, 9% of the youth consumed them regularly, probably because 19.5% of them believed that energy drinks were safe and 12.5% thought they were a type of sports drink. Boys, aged 16-17, who were physically active 3 to 6 times per week consumed the most.

Concerned about the high caffeine content of energy drinks, about three times that of soda, the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee of the NFHS issued a position statement last Fall to inform parents about the possible negative effects.

Specifically, the NFHS SMAC strongly recommends that:

  1. Water and appropriate sports drinks should be used for rehydration.
  2. Energy drinks should not be used for hydration prior to, during, or after physical activity.
  3. Information about the absence of benefit and the presence of potential risk associated with energy drinks should be widely shared among all individuals who interact with young athletes.
  4. Athletes taking over the counter or prescription medications should not consume energy drinks without the approval of their primary care provider.

So, what are the actual pros and cons of energy drinks for athletes? While there is no actual “energy” in the ingredients (~40 kcal/100 ml of product) compared to regular soda, does the effect of additional caffeine and carbs boost performance? Researchers at Madrid’s Camilo José Cela University (UCJC) tested 90 experienced athletes over four years who were not already consuming a large amount of caffeine.

Just before a sports competition, some of the athletes, including soccer, basketball, rugby, tennis and hockey players drank the equivalent of three cans of energy drink. The rest consumed the same amount of a placebo drink that they were told was an energy drink.

Using GPS, dynamometers, and potentiometers to measure distance and speed travelled along with muscle performance, the researchers found that athletes amped up on energy drinks did perform 3-7% better than the placebo group. 

"What is more, they ran further in team competitions, specially at higher intensities, which is related to sports performance,” said Juan Del Coso Garrigós, one of the authors of the study published in the British Journal of Nutrition. “Energy drinks increase jump height for basketball players, muscle force and power for climbers and trained individuals, swimming speed for sprinter swimmers, hit force and accuracy for volleyball players and the number of points scored in tennis."

However, there were also negative side effects to that mix of caffeine, carbs and B-vitamins. "Athletes felt they had more strength, power and resistance with the energy drink than with the placebo drink," said Del Coso. "However, the energy drinks increased the frequency of insomnia, nervousness and the level of stimulation in the hours following the competition."

Despite the possible gains in performance, most physicians are against energy drinks for kids and teens. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly discourages energy drinks and even thinks sports drinks aren’t really necessary.

"There is a lot of confusion about sports drinks and energy drinks, and adolescents are often unaware of the differences in these products," said Marcie Beth Schneider, MD, FAAP, a member of the AAP Committee on Nutrition, in a news release. "Some kids are drinking energy drinks—containing large amounts of caffeine—when their goal is simply to rehydrate after exercise. This means they are ingesting large amounts of caffeine and other stimulants, which can be dangerous."

"In many cases, it's hard to tell how much caffeine is in a product by looking at the label," Dr. Schneider said. "Some cans or bottles of energy drinks can have more than 500 mg of caffeine, which is the equivalent of 14 cans of soda."

Their recommendation for a healthy, rehydrating sports beverage? “For most children engaging in routine physical activity, plain water is best.”

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Dan Peterson is a recovering sports dad who is fascinated with sports science research, skill development and the athlete’s brain. He has written over 400 science-based articles across the Web and consults with parents, coaches and young players to help them understand the cognitive side of sports. You can visit him at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental and at @DanielPeterson.

Release Date: Mar 04 2015

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