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Most athletes are under the mistaken impression that they should drink during exercise to avoid dehydration. However, humans are well adapted to withstand dehydration and the evidence for an impairment of exercise performance as a result of dehydration is not convincing. The primary requirement of an energy drink is to provide energy in the form of carbohydrates.
At the start of exercise, the body contains a limited store of carbohydrate energy. The liver contains approximately 100g of glycogen and muscle stores of glycogen add approximately 500g depending on body size and training status. During moderate and high intensity exercise, carbohydrates provide the majority of energy to working muscle. As exercise intensity increases above the lactate turnpoint, carbohydrates use increases exponentially.
Without additional carbohydrate supplementation, the available energy stored would last for only 60-90min during high intensity exercise.
Consuming carbohydrates in the form of a drink, gel or energy bar provides extra carbohydrate, delaying the depletion of liver and muscle glycogen stores and preventing the onset of fatigue.
The key factor in designing an energy supplement is therefore providing the most rapidly digestable and absorbable form of carbohydrate energy.
Getting the right mix is quite a complex exercise. The first factor is the rate at which the stomach delivers any ingested substance to the small intestine for absorption. At low carbohydrate concentrations (3g/100ml or 3%) gastric emptying and fluid absorption are the greatest but as the carbohydrate content increases, the gastric emptying rate gets progressively lower. Although the emptying rate is slower with higher carbohydrate concentrations, the increased carbohydrate concentration will deliver more carbohydrate to the small intestine. This reaches a peak at about 8-10% solutions (8-10g of carbohydrate per 100ml), which is the concentration of most commercial drinks and why our drink formulations should be mixed according to the recommended number of servings per 500ml of water.
Fluid absorption and gastric emptying peak at approximately 500ml of fluid per hour. Any more than that and the remainder will most probably simply pool in the gut, weighing you down and making you nauseous..
Things get even more complicated when we start to examine the different types of carbohydrates in the various commercial drinks and energy gels. Working muscles can only utilise glucose as a fuel. However, solutions that contain only glucose are both very sweet tasting and too thick (each glucose molecule increases the osmolality). This slows gastric emptying and makes them unpalatable in very hot and dry conditions. Solutions which contain maltodextrin (nearly tasteless chains of glucose molecules) are therefore easier to drink and get absorbed more rapidly.
More recently, research has focused on fructose.
Fructose is absorbed from the gastro-intestinal tract by a separate transporter molecule to the other carbohydrates such as glucose and galactose. Ingestion of a mix of glucose and fructose can therefore increase the rate of carbohydrate absorption in comparison to drinking sugars containing only glucose or a mix of other sugars. An energy drink that contains 2/3 maltodextrose and 1/3 fructose at a concentration of 8% will result in the greatest delivery of carbohydrate to working muscle. This improves exercise performance, delays fatigue and reduces GIT distress.
During prolonged endurance exercise (>90 minutes), increasing amounts of protein are used as an energy source. These proteins are primarily provided from the breakdown of muscle proteins. This is a concern to the athlete who has trained hard to build this muscle in the first place.
Early studies which investigated the effects of protein ingestion during exercise performance were largely conducted by adding protein to a standard carbohydrate mixture. Nearly all of these studies demonstrated an ergogenic (improved performance) benefit with added protein. Subsequent studies which have balanced the total caloric content of either a carbohydrate only or a mixed protein / carbohydrate drink have not been able to demonstrate a performance benefit conclusively. Therefore, the ergogenic effect of protein was assumed to be because of a generic effect of adding calories (fuel) as opposed to a unique benefit of protein.
However, the ingestion of protein both during and after exercise has been shown unequivocally to improve protein balance, reduce markers of muscle damage and improve the rate of recovery. These factors are important to the endurance athlete in considering the longer-term adaptations to training and not just the short-term performance effects. The addition of protein to a carbohydrate based supplement provides a more practical approach to optimizing the training and recovery of athletes, particularly those who train or compete in multiple sessions on the same or consecutive days.”