Sports is all about gaining an edge over your rivals. Like it or loathe it, sports are zero-sum games and only one individual or team can prevail. Pitting athletes against each other with money and prestige on the line has been the genesis of a huge, burgeoning industry centered on science, analytics, data, and marginal gains.
Naturally, nutrition is one aspect of preparation that gets massive attention. The diets of top athletes now make national headlines, whether it’s Novak Djokovic’s gluten and dairy-free approach or Tom Brady’s even more nuanced plan. According to Vox, the star quarterback is particularly fond of fish, vegetables, and “electrolyte-rich” water.
Energy gels are now a fixture of elite competitions like the Premier League. Players can be seen fueling up on their content during games and in short breaks between play.
Indeed, energy drink brand Carabao is now the principal sponsor of the EFL Cup. Although low-carb diets maintain strong popularity, carb loading before performances is still widely practiced.
While the use of energy products before and during games has not been extensively studied, many competitive athletes feel replenished after their use.
Nevertheless, it’s highly unusual to see professionals using energy drinks like Red Bull. Although Red Bull marketing emphasizes extreme sports and performance, sugar-laden soda laced with caffeine is not embraced widely in serious competitive spheres.
This message appears not to have percolated through the public, however. Good Men Project reports a tendency of young men to overuse energy drinks in the mistaken belief that they are an appropriate tool for improving performance in all areas of their lives. In reality, the use of these drinks is more likely to lead to inadequate nutrition and the negative consequences of excess sugar intake.
Although amateur sports lack the money and notoriety of their professional counterparts, there are still bragging rights and glory on the line.
Access to professional nutritionists and fitness experts is generally lacking in this field. This means we tend to see far greater variation in approach and a tendency toward bad evidence and anecdotal reports.
Amateur sportsmen often emulate what they see on television. Energy gels used in football matches are now retailed to the public at astonishing prices. Again, while carb-loading may offer some marginal gains, these products can be overpriced because of their fashionable status.
Optimized nutrition can undoubtedly be one part of a marginal gains strategy in sports. However, ordinary consumers are vulnerable to being duped by products that promise benefits without ever really delivering.
Although it’s tempting to rely on these products alone, they are no substitute for a fundamentally solid and balanced diet. Loading up on simple carbs during a performance may offer some benefits, but the potential downsides of sugar and caffeine may outweigh any gains.
This is particularly true for amateur athletes that are not under the guidance of professionals. The best advice is to be wary of expensive, branded products that promise the world. Even if you see some of the same products in use by professionals, it’s worth remembering that the two words aren’t equivalent.
Indeed, not all energy products are created equal. And not all of them are appropriate in the same situation. In general, it’s better to avoid energy drinks and use energy gels sparingly. Try to focus your attention on practice and diet when it comes to sports, and don’t rest your prospects on any single product!