Are energy drinks worth the money?

The energy drinks industry is worth hundreds of millions of pounds and has runners and cyclists firmly in its sights. With all the complex scientific products available to us that all promise to solve our energy problems, keep up going further and faster, are they worth the money?

I have always made my own energy drink with a 750ml bottle, some summer fruits squash, a tablespoon of sugar and half a teaspoon of salt. Give it a good mix and voila, an energy drink that costs next to nothing. You can increase or reduce the sugar content depending on the length of the ride. You can also increase the salt content depending on the temperature at the time. This does me for rides up to 3 hours on days where sweat isn’t really too much of an issue.

I find it a very effective way to keep hydrated and energised. It isn’t as effective as a proper isotonic drink as it doesn’t contain minerals, but for shorter rides in middling conditions, I find it more than adequate.

A piece in the Guardian newspaper seems to agree. The piece, ‘Sugary water better for performance than some sports drinks – study’ cites a University of Bath study that assessed a club team while they cycled. Using an MRS and various other tests, they studied the effects of both commercial energy drinks and home-made ones using just sugar.

They found that the tested rider’s guts preferred sucrose over glucose and that riders found the exercise easier too with just sucrose. Sucrose is essentially what granulated sugar is made up of. It is made up of one glucose molecule connected to one fructose molecule.

The report did say that many commercial energy drinks use sucrose as an energy source but many others use either a blend of both sucrose and glucose or just glucose. Those glucose-only products, according to this study at least, do not have the same benefits as sucrose-based ones and could be why we can get upset stomachs while taking energy drinks.

While the study was limited to 14 club riders in a single club, it is indicative of an increased understanding of how our bodies work and how best to serve them before, during and after exercise. The limited size of the study means we can use this as a guide rather than ‘The New Way of Doing Things’ until more studies are performed.

From looking at the study itself, the procedures seem sound, with all riders having the same food 12 hours earlier and riding in fairly controlled ways for three hours. It is also worth noting that this particular study was being financed by Sugar Nutrition UK, which may have a vested interest in the findings.

Regardless of all that, the science gives us something to think about. Is it worth spending money on energy drinks except when you’re going really long or when it’s hot and you need electrolytes to replace those lost through sweat? I certainly don’t think so and while I’m no Chris Froome, I do enough miles a year to have an opinion.

What do you think?

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