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Most of us know that getting nutrition and hydration on point around matches is important. But should energy drinks like Red Bull make up part of a footballers diet and do they actually boost performance on match day? We’ll be addressing that question in this article but first let’s consider how common this practice really is.
Research on college athletes has shown that around 80% of college athletes regularly consume energy drinks in an attempt to improve their athletic performance (1). Use is similar across both males and females and occurs across all sports, including football. Although using a form of energy drink is not a new phenomenon (the earliest documented use goes all the way back to 1904), intake has been increasing steadily over the years. Is this a problem? Let’s consider the ingredients found in a typical can of Red Bull.
What’s in a Red Bull?
Sucrose and glucose: These are both simple sugars. This means that they are metabolised quickly by the body and produce a quick energy boost, followed by a deep energy slump. Definitely not what you want to be happening during a match! What about sugar free? Not any better, I’m afraid, sugar free Red Bull contains the artificial sweeteners aspartame, acesulfame K, and sucralose instead of sugar, which have been linked with some controversial health and metabolic effects (2). These include potentially increasing the risk for diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.
Taurine: This is an amino acid, which you already will get from foods containing protein. Taurine is involved in a number of crucial bodily processes, including maintaining cardiovascular function, and the development and function of skeletal muscle and the central nervous system. However, its role in these processes is not clearly understood and the effect of high taurine doses on these processes is not yet known. It’s important to note that absorption of taurine from drinks is likely to be much more rapid than from foods.
Glucuronolactone: This is a carbohydrate. It’s a naturally occurring substance made by the body. There’s a lack of research on its effects, particularly in humans. This means that its potential usefulness and negative side effects remain a mystery. My advice, stick to more well-known carbohydrate sources around your matches to ensure optimal performance.
Caffeine: As you probably know, this is a stimulant. This means that it increases both heart rate and blood pressure and raises the levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream. At modest doses, there’s mixed evidence about its effects on performance, with several studies showing no improvement for athletes in team sports (3). In high doses, caffeine can cause of lot of negative side effects, including anxiety, restlessness, headaches, insomnia and reduced performance. Worth the risk? Highly doubtful.
Flavourings: As the name suggestions, these are used to add flavour. Synthetic flavourings can be mixes of several different industrial chemicals. They are essentially the same chemicals as perfumes and can thus be considered to be neurotoxins, allergens and potential carcinogens. They might be tasty but they certainly aren’t healthy.
Caramel: This is used to add colour. Caramel produced by ammonia process is a common food colouring. This type of colouring has been shown to reduce immune system function in research studies (4).
B vitamins: These are water-soluble vitamins required for multiple different bodily functions, including the production of energy. Sufficient amounts can easily be obtained from food and higher amounts just get expelled from the body via urine. So those extra B vitamins in a Red Bull? They’re just going straight to waste. An expensive waste of money? You bet.
So now we’ve looked at the individual ingredients, you probably want to know about research that has looked at Red Bull and other energy drinks specifically. Have they been shown to improve exercise performance?
Do energy drinks boost exercise performance?
As Red Bull claims that it ‘’gives you wings’’, you might expect that it would improve your exercise performance during matches. However, this has not been shown to be true in studies. Research on a taurine-caffeine energy drink found no positive effect for either of these outcomes when compared to a placebo (5).The energy drink was least effective for those who routinely consumed caffeine. So, if you’re lucky enough to get a benefit from consuming an energy drink once, don’t expect it to happen again. Still think Red Bull will give you wings? Think again.
What about delaying fatigue? No luck here either I’m afraid. Consumption of energy drinks has been shown to have no effect on ability to improve time-to-exhaustion, compared to placebo, despite raising heart rate. It also had no effect on the perception of exercise intensity, i.e. making it seem easier. So, you might feel like that Red Bull is working during a match but science says otherwise (6).
So now we know that energy drinks don’t boost exercise performance, you might be wondering about possible negative effects of consuming them. Are they really as harmless as they seem? Let’s find out.
What are the side effects of consuming energy drinks?
A number of both long and short term side effects have been reported for using energy drinks, particularly for cardiovascular health. Here is what’s been found in research (7):
Short term effects:
And that’s just in the short term! In the long term, it gets even worse.
Long term effects:
So consuming Red Bull and other similar energy drinks is not just ineffective for boosting performance but actually has some pretty nasty side effects. You might want to think of those next time you’re considering downing a can!
By now you’re probably thinking that energy drinks are not the best choice for drinking before or during a match but what should you do instead? Luckily there are plenty of strategies that can help optimise your performance on the pitch, no Red Bull required.
How can you boost performance without using energy drinks?
Being able to perform on the pitch isn’t just about what you eat and drink on match day, it’s about what you do the rest of the time. Here are some key strategies to make sure you are able to give it your all during a match: