Is that drink making her faster?
Sports people are an advertiser’s dream. We’re all desperate to get the edge on our competitors, to make the boat go faster or to run that little bit more quickly. There are medals, pots and a lot of pride at stake (and, for the serious competitors, money), so if someone can promise to make us better (without requiring extra work from us)… well, we’re going to sit up and listen, aren’t we?
But in our eagerness to get ahead, are we being ripped off by the manufacturers of sports products? Last night’s Panorama on BBC1 asked if that’s exactly what’s been happening. The programme – The Truth About Sports Products – looked at the claims made by the makers of sports supplements and trainers to find out if they were backed up by hard evidence. We were introduced to a team from Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence Based Medicine who, together with the British Medical Journal, had been going through health and fitness magazines, testing the claims made about performance and recovery and looking at the the scientific evidence to support them. We learned that when GlaxoSmithKline produced 40 years’ worth of studies to back up their claims, the team went through those as well, analysing the quality of the evidence, the size of the effects and who it applied to.
Panorama also interviewed record-breaking cyclist Graeme Obree, Professor Tim Noakes of the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at Cape Town University (which involved a nice trip to South Africa… jealous, much?) who has carried out research on sports drinks; a representative from the European Food Safety Authority; Dr. Benno Nigg of the Human Performance Laboratory at Calgary University who has investigated different types of trainers and whether they can prevent injury (nice trip to Canada… ditto); Professor Mike Lean of the Department of Human Nutrition at Glasgow University (OK, not such a great trip) and various others.
And this is what they concluded:
1. Will carbohydrate drinks improve your performance? Unless you’re an elite endurance athlete, no.The evidence does not show that performance in the population at large is improved by carbohydrate drinks. Although carbs do have an effect, it takes more than an hour for this to make an impact and that impact will only be significant amongst high performance athletes. You’d be better off copying Graeme Obree and just having bread and jam.
2. What about low calorie sports drinks? Could they help? In a word, no. The calories are the whole point of these drinks.
3. Will protein supplements beef you up or help you to recover faster? Again, no. Although there’s some limited evidence that high performance athletes might benefit in terms of muscle strength from certain amino acids (the supplements talk a lot about branched chain amino acids), protein shakes and bars have no advantage for the likes of you and me over the ordinary protein and carbohydrates that you find in food. Graeme Obree recommended sardines on toast with vegetables.
4. What about hydration? Can sports drinks help with that? No. They won’t hydrate you more than water can, and overhydration is much more dangerous than dehydration.
5. Can the right trainers make you run faster? No. There’s no evidence to back this up. Usain Bolt’s Puma trainers might look great but what counts is the person inside them.
6. But what about preventing injury? Will structured trainers prescibed for your individual gait help you to avoid injury? Probably not. They might make a minor contribution but what really counts is the distance and way you run and your recovery time.
7. OK, but what about barefoot running shoes? They have plenty of science to back them up, right? Actually, no. There can be advantages to barefoot running (provided you modify your gait correctly) but there’s nothing to show that these shoes have any advantage. You’re better off just choosing whichever running shoes you find most comfortable.
So far so devastating… and yet I found the programme, for all its scientific credentials, a little disappointing. When it came to isotonic drinks and hydration, it rather skated over the issue. “You might as well drink water”, it said, rather breezily, illustrating the point with a nice shot of gushing water, but didn’t actually go into the science of why. It spent much more time dealing with the issue of overhydration vs. dehydration (indisputably an important issue), but it still left me with unanswered questions.
It also failed to acknowledge the twin issues of digestibility and convenience – crucial for anybody who competes. It’s all very well to advocate bread and jam as a pre-training snack, but when I’m lining up for a race, feeling sick with nerves and wanting a quick sugar boost, I’m not going to start munching sandwiches. Give me a swig of a sports drink, which I could grab from the supermarket on the way there, any day. Equally, whilst a protein shake might not be nutritionally superior to a plate of meat and veg, for someone who has to dash back to their desk after a lunchtime workout and doesn’t have the time (or a handy kitchen) to rustle up a proper meal, it makes perfect sense.
And here’s the thing. We weren’t born yesterday. We all know that with sport there’s no magic bullet other than good genes and a lot of hard work, but sports psychology is a little more complicated than that. Whatever our logical heads tell us, our hearts still soar a little if we feel we’re catching a little of the stardust falling from our sporting heroes before it hits the ground. If we drink what they drink, even if it doesn’t actually make us faster, it makes us feel faster, and that’s half the battle.
The truth is that most of us are more than capable of seeing through a bit of advertising puff. Do I really think that I’m going to row like Katherine Grainger if I down a bottle of Powerade before a race? No, of course I don’t, but it might make me feel the part if I choose it over a glass of squash. In the same way, I can see through the fake science and made-up words in cosmetics ads – and I know that the latest face cream isn’t really going to turn me into Scarlett Johanssen – but I’ll probably still choose it over a 50p bar of soap.
So yes, it’s good that we should examine the science and I’m all for exposing quacks for what they are. But before tonight’s circuits I’m fairly certain I’ll be sprinkling some carb powder into my water bottle. Just, you know, in case.