ARTICLE: Protein Drinks to break genetic barriers?

Following my last article on Creatine supplementation and its benefits, I would like to delve into another, even more directly applicable, ergogenic (performance-enhancing) supplement: the sports drink.

There are very few runners now who are not familiar with sports drinks and they come in various popular brands: Gatorade being the first but now followed by Powerade, Lucozade, and many others. All of the major brands can be purchased either as bottled liquid or as some form of soluble powder or as gel packs. In the gel market, there are good few other brands that don't sell their supplements in liquid form at all. The most notable difference between gels and readily-drinkable sports drink is that many gels contain caffeine, a powerful stimulant that also works as a performance-enhancer (Noakes 2003, Fitzgerald 2008, Baechle & Earle 2008).

Today's Sports Drinks
All of the sports drinks currently in the market are tailored towards the hitherto perfect "content" for performance (Noakes 2003):

  1. Palatability (if it doesn't taste nice, runners will struggle to imbibe it)
  2. Carbohydrate concentration of 5-10%
  3. Variety of carbohydrate sources: dextrose, glucose, maltodextrins (this increases osmolality, or the sports drinks ability to permeate membranes in your body and be successfully absorbed)
  4. Sodium concentration of 20-60 mmol/l (the higher fluid intake required, the higher sodium concentration is needed to stave off hyponatremia, or low blood-sodium content, which can be fatal)
Specialist readers may be surprised not to see potassium and other electrolytes (e.g. blood minerals providing an electrically conducive medium when dissolved and allow normal organ function in humans) on the list especially as most commercial sports drinks include potassium. In events shorter than 18 hours the total replacement of other electrolytes (chloride, potassium, calcium, and magnesium) is not necessary as they are lost in such minute amounts (Cordain and Friel 2005). Don't fret about the potassium content in sports drink, though, its quite healthy.

As an anecdote, in general ensure you have a low sodium intake outside exercise. Excessive sodium-intake worsens exercise-induced asthma (EIA) symptoms! (Cordain and Friel 2005).

Enter Accelerade
Durings my readings last year several books including Dean Karnazes' "Ultra-Marathon Man as well as and Fitzgerald's "The Cutting Edge Runner" and "Brain Training" (Fitzgerald 2005, Fitzgerald 2008) have highlighted benefits of ingesting protein during exercise. Cordain and Friel (2005) likewise, in their book "Paleo Diet for Athletes" point out benefits of taking protein before exercise.

This is a relatively novel concept for many runners who have learned long ago, from the body-building community, that protein after exercise is important to aid recovery and muscle repair.

The drink launched is called Accelerade and also exists in Gel-form (Accel-Gel). It's predecessor product "Endurox" is also highly effective but has to be used slightly differently (I'll return to this below).

The Science Behind Accelerade
Cadbury-Schweppes launched a grand initiative based on research suggesting that intake of protein, amino-acids, and anti-oxidants during exercise would not only enhance performance but also increase recovery time, and released the now commercially available sports drink "Accelerade". 15 studies have seen corrobated their claim to increase endurance by up to 24% and while some of these may be paid by Cadbury-Schweppes, the underlying science was already sound so there is no serious reason to doubt the veracity of thsee claims. Perhaps only the magnitude of the purported benefits needs further testing.

One study deserves special mention as it compared Accelerade to Gatorade and was not funded by the creators of Accelerade (PacificHealth Labs). Fitzgerald (2008) presents this study that showed athletes were able to bike 29% longer and suffered 83% less muscle damage the day after their first test ride. The scale of this benefit has not been reproduced since but Accelerade has performed better than traditional sports drinks in every study conducted since, including those funded by the rival companies!

Why Protein?
It's common knowledge that protein is essential for muscular repair, so by ingesting amounts during exercise, most people can accept the fact that it will reduce muscle damage.

But are their other benefits? There is, and Cordain and Friel (2005), point out a few:

  • Protein lowers the glycemic index of carbohydrates ingested with it (e.g. carbs ingested with protein will "burn longer")
  • Certain essential amino acids in protein stimulate protein synthesis after exercise (quicker recovery time)
  • Protein has shown to lower heart rate at submaximal effort (increasing time to exhaustion and maximum power output at this intensity)
And it doesn't end there: As Fitzgerald (2008) and Noakes (2003) have pointed out, most fatigue is caused by your brain putting down the brakes when it senses significant muscular damage occuring in your body. The immune system agent that triggers this warning response from the brain is called interleukin-6. Protein intake during exercise may fool the brain into thinking that a plentiful supply of protein exists (which may be true) and temporarily override the "warning".

The long-term benefit is the key one, however, if you can consistently repair muscle damage faster, all of your workouts will improve in quality, and your performance will increase quicker.

Pushing back the Genetic Barrier
I found this conclusion to be the most interesting. Noakes (2003) and Fitzgerald (2008) both point out that the decisive genetic factor separating elite athletes form non-elite athletes may be their bodies' ability to withstand very intensive training programmes that would cause overtraining and injury in less genetically gifted individuals.

Who among us don't wish they could breach some of the genetic barriers that separate us from our more gifted competitors? Why should they have it easier than us? This is, of course, not entirely possible, as some factors, including muscle fibre composition, cannot currently be changed. But with Accelerade we may now all benefit from a much swifter recovery, meaning, theoretically, we could gain the same or better recovery rate as more genetically gifted athletes who are not using Accelerade.

What about Protein shakes?
Anyone who's gone to the gym has heard of protein shakes, generally containing both carbohydrate and protein. These are undoubtedly effective and there is plenty of evidence to support it.

However, there's reason to believe you should prefer Accelerade and Endurox to traditional protein shakes. Protein cannot be stored in the body (use it or lose it) and the protein content of most protein shakes is too high to be fully absorbed (often as high as 60-80%!). The patented formula by PacificHealth Labs also seems to suggest that a 4-1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein works best.

For runners, there's a more crucial consideration to this ratio: Protein is not easily digestible and too much in your sports drink will make it impossible to digest during exercise and problematic before exercise as well. This makes traditional protein shakes useless for runners before and during exercise. There is also no reason to use them after as the Accelerade and Endurox ratios of carbs and protein seem more beneficial to runners than the ratios in most protein shakes.

How to use.
So if you buy Accelerade and Endurox, how should you use them? Tom Wild of TriCentral was nice enough to prescribe me the following guidelines:

  1. Before: Use Accelerade
  2. During: 1-2 Accel-Gels pr. hour after the first hour (racing or very long runs only)
  3. After: Use Accelerade if workout less than an hour, Endurox if workout longer than an hour
From time to time, however, especially when you feel fresh and healthy, don't take anything before or during exercise. Racing in a pre-fatigued state makes your body adapted to the afore-mentioned interleukin-6 immune system agent and will get you greater long-term benefits. However, this must be done with care. Accelerade will hugely reduce your risk of overtraining and staleness, so when you don't use it, especially in heavy-intensity weeks, you make yourself increasingly vulnerable to sliding down the overtraining path.

Where to Buy
I have not yet found Accelerade commercially available in Ireland, but the is a very friendly Manchester-based retailer who sell not only Accelerade but also Accel-Gel and Endurox.

(Sometimes I wish I was a retailer as I seem to have a knack for finding places to purchase latest running technologies. I remember the time when Skinz was almost unknown and I got hand of it. Today you see it in many places).

I put in my first order for a 60-serving pack of Accelerade powder, 2 boxes of Accel-Gel (24 gels in each) which should cover me for a long time in races, and 1 package of Endurox powder (28 servings).

I had planned to buy protein powder from my favourite retailer EnergyFirst, but now that seems unnecessary as Endurox and Accelerade together will provide me with the right protein to ensure I can recover through the punishing schedule ahead.