Stimulants aren’t anything new. As a species we’ve been searching for better ways to boost performance for thousands of years – from South Americans chewing coca leaves to stave off altitude sickness to coffee-driven office workers in London and cocaine-fueled traders on Wall Street. Stimulants seem a natural part of our progression, a way to get ahead of the competition. Unsurprisingly then, similar stimulants in the form of energy drinks have entered the world of sports. It was only a matter of time before a cunning athlete or nutritionist devised a way to better an opponent without training any harder. Modern day energy drinks are renowned for two things: sugar and caffeine. Both of which can, in a concentrated amount, boost performance in the short term.
So where did it all start? To find the answer you probably have to look back to the 1960s. There came a point when drinks started to be produced for the sole purpose of providing energy, and it all started in Japan. Taisho Pharmaceuticals developed the first drink specifically targeted at increasing energy, which contained a mixture of vitamins as well as taurine. The invention of industry giant Red Bull came some twenty years later, and with the welcomed additions of caffeine and sugar. Red Bull was introduced to the European market in the late nineties, and a new industry found its opening.
These days athletes across all disciplines can be seen using energy drinks. Colorful concoctions claim to be better for hydration than water, which to some extent, is justified. Drinks such as Powerade include many of the minerals lost through sweat during exercise, such as sodium, which is vital to keeping the body hydrated. On top of this, as silly as it sounds, energy drinks tend to taste better than water, increasing the likelihood that they will be taken on board before, during and after exercise. This simple facts means they can be effective substitutes for a bottle of H2O.
But what about the effects of these additives and stimulants? Whilst some, such as Creatine and Taurine have proven effects on muscle contractions, the benefits of others can be hard to substantiate. Caffeine, after providing an initial buzz, can be dangerous when consumed in high amounts. All in all this means that yes, energy drinks do provide short term benefits to athletes, but may also have longer term risks to health. Common risks and symptoms include heart palpitations, dizziness, chest pain and insomnia – all of which are linked to high consumption of energy drinks.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between the energy drink sceptics and those who preach of their effectiveness. Yes, they are useful for replenishing lost minerals during exercise, and are effective for rehydration. But some simply contain too much sugar and caffeine, providing only a short term high with potentially dangerous effects if consumed in large quantities. If you’re a serious athlete, make the most of them. If not, it’s unlikely that you’re doing yourself any favors.