Carb and Protein Sports Drinks Don’t Help Performance

Do you really need both carbs and protein in your workout drink? Or does drinking protein during a workout actually tax energy from your body? Science takes a look at workout drinks.

In recent years with evidence that perhaps carbohydrate drinks aren’t all they have been cut out to be for athletes, there has been an upsurge in the popularity of drinks mixing carbs and protein. The benefits of this mix are thought to be especially applicable for exercise longer than 60 minutes. Proteins are used in muscle recovery, like carbs, and also in the creation of many enzymes responsible for energy. The theory is that the combination helps with active recovery and refueling more than carbohydrates alone.

Unfortunately the rising prominence of carb and protein blended sports drinks is perhaps a case of waning interest in traditional sports drinks causing consumers to look elsewhere for results. The evidence to support even the use of a carbohydrate and protein mixed drink is pretty limited as well. In a recent study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers examined if this new type of sports drink is worth your money.

In the study the researchers compared various traditional sports drinks, including drinks with a more than normal amount of carbohydrates, as well as carb and protein mixed drinks. The beverages provided were the standard commercially available type. Researchers prepared a placebo drink as well.

The participants of the study ran outdoors in real world conditions for a lengthy 19.2 kilometers. The researchers avoided funky study variables like carb-depleting the athletes ahead of time and tried to provide the drinks spread evenly across the run to more closely mimic what a person might encounter in an actual race.

What researchers found was no difference between the various beverages, and none of the drinks performed better than the placebo. The run done by the study participants also included a final sprint at the end of the run, and not even that elicited any difference in results.

Over very long distances, longer than studied here, these types of drinks may have an actual effect where the substrate availability for producing energy might be a limiting factor for exercise. Over a long run like the one in the study, the distance probably isn’t sufficient to require an intake of nutrients. The extra circulating calories in the blood don’t seem to be a factor either.

It’s possible that there is some sort of boost provided by these drinks for this type of exercise, but it is counteracted by an increased metabolic demand from digestion. It takes energy to digest your food, protein most of all, and this might be sufficient to eliminate any benefit from the drink.

Ultimately, if you’re participating in events or training of any kind that lasts for around an hour or a little longer, commercially available sports drinks might just be a waste of your money. Even “cutting edge” versions that purport to improve your performance over traditional beverages seem to be more a case of clever marketing than good science. Save your money and just go with good, old-fashioned cold water.


1. Adriana Coletta, et. al., “The influence of commercially-available carbohydrate and carbohydrate-protein supplements on endurance running performance in recreational athletes during a field trial,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10:17 (2013)

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