The Pursuit of Optimal Performance

In our pursuit of optimal performance, every facet of physiology, nutrition and equipment has been scientifically evaluated and updated.  We have satellites tracking our speed, heart rate monitors to record intensity and a shoe industry that is constantly in search of innovation.  How did Roger Bannister ever break the 4-minute mile without Nikes and a GPS watch?

But for every scientific study that sends sports performance into new areas, there is one that extolls the value of simplicity.  One such area is sports nutrition.  The sports drink industry has bombarded the Internet and television with drinks designed to make athletes play longer and recover faster.  But do we need Ragin’ Melon flavored drinks to recover?

It is well accepted that exercise-induced dehydration will negatively affect later performance and replacement of lost fluids needs to occur after exercise.  Additionally well known is the need to replenish stored muscle energy, known to the scientist types as muscle glycogen, soon after exercise less subsequent exercise capacity be diminished.  Drinks that contain sodium and simple sugars have been shown to rehydrate faster than simple water.

While muscle energy/stored sugar can be replaced by solid food, rehydration can only be achieved with fluids; thus the recovery sports drink was born of the need to achieve both ends in one tidy package.

But rest assured, no stone has been left unturned by the sports drink industry.  Scientific research on the optimal composition, concentration and amount of fluid needed to optimize performance and recovery is constantly being transformed into the drinks seen on convenience store shelves.

However some of this recent research suggests that the items on your refrigerator shelves may work just as well as the drinks hyped up on television.

In one such study, cyclists were asked to cycle to exhaustion after previously performing an earlier vigorous ride with only a 4-hour rest period between the bouts of exercise.  The cyclists were either given chocolate milk, an energy replacement sports drink or a fluid replacement sports drink between the two rides.  Surprisingly, the cyclists that were given the chocolate milk were able to ride 50% longer than those given the energy replacement sports drink.  So much for Gatorade.

But what about team sports?  After all Gatorade was originally designed for University of Florida football players and if you turn on ESPN, chances are you’ll see a commercial showing basketball, football or soccer athletes guzzling Gatorade to help them recover.  Well, don’t forget non-fluorescently-colored boring old milk.  Turns out drinking milk after a hard practice helps those team sport athletes recover faster for the next practice.  The milk-fortified athletes ran faster than a group of those that just drank water.

Additional studies have validated milk as an effective post-workout drink.  Milk was more effective than a traditional sports drink in rehydrating after activity.  Researchers hypothesized that protein contained within milk not only had a greater effect on fluid balance but it reduced muscle damage after strenuous exercise.  Maybe that was the secret to Roger Bannister’s mile.

Add that to the fact that the high caloric value of sugar-filled sports drinks have been linked to the rise of obesity in children and adults and you may have another reason to stick with a more “natural” sports drink.  In fact, sports nutrition research suggests that you only need an energy (sugar) replacement drink like Gatorade after an hour of continuous exercise activity.  That’s the point that your body’s own stores of carbohydrates become depleted and need to be supplemented lest a decrease in performance or “bonk” occur.

Additionally, fructose, the type of sugar contained in sodas and fruit juices, is absorbed more slowly through the digestive system and delays rehydration.   This and the higher concentration of sugars typically found in fruit juices and sodas make them unsuited for optimal rehydration and recovery.

So while sports drinks have been scientifically formulated to rehydrate and replenish, they may not be superior to good old-fashioned milk.  So after your next strenuous workout you can reach for the chocolate milk and tell yourself it’s for optimal recovery.  Got Milk?