Do Energy Drinks Benefit Athletes?

Dr. Mel is my friend, colleague, an accomplished endurance athlete (road racer), and a respected researcher in sports nutrition. Recently, she has taken an interest in energy drinks and examining if they truly enhance sport performance in adventure athletes, as their marketing implies. Below is her latest research on this topic:

Energy Drinks
Photo: D.ST.

Energy Drinks have become popular in the culture of adventure athletes, both recreational and trained, due to their claimed energy enhancement. They are heavily marketed to 18-34 year-old males and these companies often sponsor many extreme athletes and related events. Now I don’t recommend biting the hand that feeds you, but I want you to be make an informed decision as to whether consuming an energy drink is right for you.

There are many research studies that have examined athletic performance and cognitive performance benefits with consumption of an energy drink prior to or during an activity. The types of activities that have been researched are quite varied and include: cycling time trials, simulated soccer, resistance training, simulated golf, simulated driving, and firefighting. Many studies found performance benefits while others did not.

The benefits included: increased time to exhaustion, increased aerobic and anaerobic performance, decreased perceived effort, and increased mental focus, alertness, and concentration. Some claimed increased metabolism for weight loss. There is some evidence that consuming low-calorie energy drinks may promote a small amount of additional fat loss when combined with a weight loss program. If one is trying to be aware of calorie intake, they shouldn’t forget how quickly liquid calories such as an energy drink may add up when consumed in larger quantities.

The largest and most widely known energy drink company is Red Bull®. They’ve supported much of the research on energy drinks both monetarily and by creating and providing sugar-free and placebo versions of their drinks for scientific testing.

There is a challenge when testing energy drinks due to the many different ingredients, although caffeine is the primary active ingredient. There may be interactions between ingredients, where one ingredient may enhance the effect of another or may cancel out the effect. Another challenge is the comparison of different energy drinks since they all have a slightly (or dramatically) different ingredient profile. It’s also difficult to determine exact dosages of various herbal ingredients (e.g. Proprietary Blend) for comparison. The FDA considers energy drinks a supplement; therefore companies are not required to list all ingredients, dosages or verify safety or purity of the ingredients.

Photo: Tambako the Jaguar

Ingredients vary from brand to brand, but they all have some form of glucose (with the exception of sugar-free varieties) and varying amounts of caffeine (guarana, green tea, yerbe mate) in the range of 50-505 mg/serving. They may also contain taurine, B-vitamins, ginseng, ginko biloba, L-carnitine, milk thistle, quercetin and/or individual amino acids. The primary ergogenic ingredients are caffeine and glucose; consumption of either or both has well-established benefits to physical and cognitive performance. The remaining ingredients require further research to determine their efficacy and safety.

Some potential issues that have been reported include disturbed sleep and gastrointestinal distress. There are case reports of seizures or heart problems, usually after consuming very large quantities resulting in caffeine intoxication.  Another issue is the mixing of alcohol with energy drinks. The risk of this combination is that the stimulating effects of the energy drink can reduce the sensation of alcohol intoxication. This may lead to reduced perception of impaired function and judgment relative to risky behavior and further alcohol consumption. This is not beneficial to physical or cognitive performance.

So, are energy drinks right for you? The short answer: there are some benefits with moderate doses (1-2 servings), but potential issues with large intakes. Suggestion: gain most of your “energy” from healthy food and enough sleep instead.

-Melissa W. Roti, PhD, FACSM

Play safe out there!
Dr. Kevin

PhD, Brooks-Range Mountaineering Product Ambassador,
Assistant Professor Westfield State University, AMGA member


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