Protein-Enriched Sports Drinks: Yes or No?

Guest Blog by By Rebecca Scritchfield, RD, ACSM Health Fitness Specialist:

A large body of research evidence shows that sports drinks improve performance in athletes competing in endurance activities. Here’s how it works: when you consume adequate amounts of sports beverages, you offset dehydration and carbohydrate depletion thanks to the sugar, water, and electrolytes in the beverage.

More recently, researchers have been interested in the potential of protein to provide additional performance benefits during the event and in post-exercise muscle recovery. Of the eight published studies, four have reported enhanced performance with a carbohydrate and protein beverage  — up to a 13-36% increase in time to exhaustion — when a carbohydrate and protein beverage is ingested instead of a carb-only sports drink, especially when the carb-protein drink is taken at a rate of 37-47 grams of carbohydrate per hour.

But more doesn’t automatically mean better; other studies found no additional benefits when carbohydrates were ingesed at a higher rates of 60-80 grams per hour.

Whether or not you should try protein enhanced sports beverages may depend upon how much carbohydrate you can consume per hour and the length of your endurance event. Three studies were conducted on long-duration activities: two of them showed no benefit from taking a carbohydrate protein drink and one study showed faster late-exercise performance times. The study that showed improved performance used drinks at a rate of 70 grams of carbohydrate per hour, and the studies that showed no benefit gave the protein at much higher rates (80-90 grams per hour). The downside to higher rates of carbohydrate intake is the potential for gastrointestinal upset, which no competitor wants to face.

Adding protein to sports beverages may also promote recovery from heavy endurance exercise. Many studies show protein consumed in the recovery period reduces muscle soreness. However, some studies showed that post-exercise muscle function and reduced muscle soreness resulted when carbohydrate and protein intake was confined to the exercise period alone.

The jury is still out on the use of protein-enhanced sports drinks during endurance activities. If you’re someone who typically under fuels with beverages, experiences GI upset, or competes in lengthy endurance events, they might be worth a try. Anecdotally, my clients who compete in half and full Ironman events swear by sports beverages with protein, and I use them in my marathons and ultra marathons as well.

Here’s the bottom line: whatever works for you is what works, but if you’re going to test out sports drinks with protein, don’t wait until competition. You should give them a try during a long exercise bout where you can be prepared with backup beverages. Above all else, remember that fueling with a standard sports drink is better than fueling with water alone, so take the time to find one you love and you’ll go as far as you want this race season.

Rebecca Scritchfield is a registered dietitian specializing in performance nutrition and weight management, an ultramarathoner and triathlete., Twitter @ScritchfieldRD


About horowitzrun

Jeff is a certified running, cycling, and triathlon coach, and is the author of "My First 100 Marathons" (Skyhorse Press 2008) and "Smart Marathon Training" (Velo Press 2011). An obviously addicted runner, Jeff has run at least one marathon in every state and on 6 continents, including marathons in South Africa, China, Bangkok, and Antarctica. Jeff is available for group, one-on-one, and virtual coaching. Options include: 1. Basic Training Plan. This includes a customized training schedule geared towards a goal race, with a detailed running schedule that would include all distances and target times for each workout, including speedwork, tempo, and endurance sessions. 2. Complete Fitness and Race Plan. This includes the plan listed above, plus the non-running workouts and drills that runners need for better overall fitness and performance. You would get strength & core workouts, as well as run-specific training drills and stretches. 3. Virtual Coaching. This includes all of the above, implemented on a week-by-week basis. We review each week's progress at week's end so that adjustments can be made. The program is tailored to suit you right up to race day. It involves more contact, on a weekly or even daily basis. 4. Full Coaching for athletes in the Washington DC area. All of the above, plus a weekly workout together including speedwork, drills, and strength training. 5. Individual track sessions. One-on-one track-based workouts. Contact Jeff for pricing.
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