Are Energy Drinks Bad for Athletes?

If you’re an athlete who needs an energy drink to get through practice or games, this post is for you.

Photo credit: https://www.thekirkwoodcall.com

Athletes all over the world use ergogenic aids to meet their performance goals. Caffeinated beverages and caffeine-containing food products are some of the most popular. Though effective, many athletes use these products incorrectly, resulting in dangerous dosages and ineffective results. 

First of all, let us examine what is considered an energy drink and why athletes are drinking them. Energy drinks have a high caffeine content combined with large amounts of vitamins, minerals, taurine, amino acids, and different mixes of phytochemicals.

Energy drinks often have too high of a caffeine content to be considered a food product and therefore are classified as a supplement. You can determine if your favorite energy drink is a food product or a supplement based on the nutrition label. Supplements have a supplement label and food products (regulated by the FDA) have a nutrition label.

Though dietary supplement usage is widespread, poor monitoring and oversight by the FDA have allowed supplement manufacturers leniency in the quality control of supplements. In the early 1990s, the FDA passed legislation that allowed dietary supplements to undergo different quality testing and safety regulations before going to market. This set of testing requirements and quality monitoring is vastly different from food product testing.

Supplement label vs nutrition label

What Makes Energy Drinks Appealing?

A recent study showed that 87% of athletic women took dietary supplements to increase their energy levels. It is no secret that athletes are looking for ways to increase energy levels on the field! The idea that simply drinking a beverage will elevate energy levels is attractive.

But are the promises from energy drinks too good to be true? I want to dive into more about the active ingredients in energy drinks. 

Energy drinks contain different nutrients (vitamins, minerals, taurine, amino acids, sugar) and phytochemicals (caffeine). Most of these items claim to increase energy levels, but the main active ingredients in energy drinks are caffeine and sugar.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a heavily researched phytonutrient and its usage is supportive of athletic performance. It is available in sports gels, gummies, bars, chewing gum, pills, and beverages. The recommended dosage for increasing energy levels and concentration during sports performance is thought to be 3-5 g/kg of body weight. As most energy drinks contain 200 mg or more of caffeine, the dosage of the caffeine in most energy drinks is enough to significantly increase energy levels.

Sugar

Many energy drinks claim to be sugar-free. This might sound appealing to athletes, but as a Sports Dietitian, this does not make sense to me! Sugar (aka carbohydrate) is your main energy source at high-intensity exercise. Having carbohydrates or a high-carbohydrate meal before training has been shown to increase performance and energy levels on the field.

This is why sugar-free energy drinks are not ideal for increasing energy! If you are drinking an energy drink to increase energy on the field, then why would you want to leave out one of the main energy-providing ingredients? 

Sugar is not always bad – it can actually be helpful for athletes!

So Should You Drink Energy Drinks?

Energy drinks are not something I generally recommend for athletes. Caffeine is beneficial for performance, but there are healthier ways to get it. I recommend a canned espresso drink or another coffee beverage over an energy drink. Caffeinated gels and gummies are also better options.

Before you head for a caffeine supplement though, I recommend looking at your fueling plan. I see many soccer players and other athletes who use energy drinks as a bandaid for a bad diet.

Under-fueling and poor nutritional habits lead to chronic low energy levels on the field. Not only do under-fueled athletes report low energy levels, but they also report inadequate performance, increased risk for injury, more common illness, and overall inferior health.

In the Performance Fueling Club (my sports nutrition coaching program), the number one outcome athletes report after joining is increased energy levels. We talk all about what to eat before your training session so you feel your best on the field. By incorporating carbohydrates and full meals throughout the day, you will significantly raise your energy levels and performance.

Athletes are often shocked at how easy it is to feel energized and how minor changes in their fueling plan help them accomplish this! When you build a strong fueling foundation, you will be surprised that you are now able to use the caffeine/energy drink as an ergogenic aid to help elevate performance instead of something necessary to get through training!

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