There’s been a fair bit of research lately on the lack of effect of carbohydrate-laden sports drinks for athletic performance. It seems there isn’t much reason to drink them unless your sporting event is very long.
However, recovery is a different animal altogether. A group of researchers published a study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition to determine whether carb beverages fare better on that front.
The type of recovery the researchers were most interested in is called acute thermoregulatory recovery. Other aspects of recovery from exercise might take days, but keeping body temperature and fluid volume in check is an urgent need the body attends to right away. The type of drink you consume for recovery may play a big role in how quickly the process occurs.
Ten participants performed two different recovery protocols after a dehydration-inducing workout. The workout included exercising on an exercise bike in a hot room for nearly two hours. After the workout, they drank either a carb and electrolyte sports drink or a carb-free electrolyte drink. The next time they came in, they did the same workout but drank the other drink.
Effects on Performance
The non-carb beverage performed just as well as the carb version. With the exception of one non-significant result, none of the variables were different between the two experimental conditions. Blood volume and body temperature were regulated just as effectively, regardless of which beverage the subjects consumed. As such, the researchers concluded that electrolyte beverages without carbs have a rightful place in athletics.
Effects on Mood
Another major finding of this study related to mood. The researchers found that mood was altered in both groups. However, just as with performance, there was no difference between the carbohydrate drink and the non-carbohydrate drink.
While the participants experienced generally positive moods (albeit with a lot of personal variation) prior to dehydration, their attitudes shifted for the worse after the end of the program. While this has little to do with the type of beverage you consume, it is important to note nonetheless. Some sports, like gymnastics and wrestling, can have long days of intermittent activity where an athlete is required to perform repeatedly with long rests in between. Fatigue and declining hydration levels may shift attitudes in a direction that doesn’t favor performance.
When it came to recovery of favorable moods, however, there did seem to be a trend toward more rapid recovery when using carbohydrates. This results makes sense, since the increasing insulin resulting from carbohydrates can cause greater serotonin production in the brain, and thus more pleasant feelings. This is the same phenomenon that makes exercise feel good.
Unfortunately, carb intake may also cause fatigue and sleepiness. For managing positive attitudes, it may be best to drink a light carbohydrate and electrolyte beverage on long days of exercise, in order to ensure adequate time for mental recovery. Overdoing it with excess carbs, however, may stunt performance, even if it helps improve mood.
Ultimately, this study is one more piece of evidence showing carbs are not necessary for hydration and recovery of homeostasis in athletes, although they may help to improve mood and encourage rest when exercise is at completion. On days when rest is not an option, the best way to optimize performance and mood is by maintaining hydration during training and avoiding fatigue before exercise.
1. Seo et al., “Do glucose containing beverages play a role in thermoregulation, thermal sensation, and mood state?,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2014, 11:24
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