When I began training last year for my first marathon, my running partner Dave Freedholm, an experienced amateur distance runner, impressed on me the need to vigilantly avoid dehydration. His drink of choice was Accelerade. Like Gatorade, the original sports drink, it's packed with sugars and sodium to provide energy and replace the electrolytes depleted in sweat. But it also contains protein, which he said would help my muscles repair themselves more quickly after the punishing training runs he took me on.
Sure enough, I never felt much pain until after the marathon itself, and even then I recovered within a couple of days (aside from a foot injury, but that's another story). My anecdotal report isn't scientific, but legitimate research has consistently confirmed the muscle-repairing properties of protein consumed just after exercise.
Two new studies add some real science to the topic. Unfortunately, they contradict each other. One, appearing in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, compared a Gatorade-like drink with one similar to Accelerade, as well as with an artificially sweetened placebo. The conclusion: added protein might indeed help muscle recovery, but it does nothing to aid athletic performance. The other, appearing in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, looked not at performance but at hydration--how much of what you drink stays in your body. And in that study Accelerade came out on top.
That may not come as much of a surprise, considering that the studies were funded, respectively, by the companies that make Gatorade and Accelerade. Both articles seem reasonably sound as far as they go--and being published in real journals puts them a cut above the usual in-house publicity stunt. But in some ways, they don't go very far. For one thing, they're much too small--just 13 subjects in one case and 10 in the other--to be considered definitive. And both claim to be double-blind--a good thing in a research study, since it means that neither the testers nor the subjects are told who's getting which drug (or in this case, which drink) at any given time. But if you have ever tasted Gatorade and Accelerade, you might wonder whether the athletes could really have been fooled. It's not clear whether that knowledge could influence either performance or fluid retention, of course, but stranger things have happened.
What's most noteworthy here is that both studies acknowledge that for serious athletes, sports drinks are significantly better than water. In addition to supplying energy and replenishing electrolytes, Gatorade and Accelerade deliver more fluid to dried-out cells than plain water does. The Sport Nutrition study says Accelerade beats Gatorade on that score by 15%--important if you're an élite athlete, maybe, but for most of us, not a crucial difference. Also, Accelerade is a bit more expensive and, in my opinion, not quite as tasty as Gatorade, which I sometimes drink just because I like the flavor.
Nevertheless, I'll probably stick with Accelerade for exercise. It has the carbs and sodium I need, and given the choice of hurting more the next day or hurting less--well, pain has never appealed to me that much. Dave and I will be running the Baltimore, Md., half-marathon in October, by the way. If you're there, cheer us on.