Coca-Cola is in deep sugary bubbly waters. Its sales have dropped and so did other colas. A group called the Global Energy Balance Network, led by scientists and created by Coca-Cola, announced this year that it was shutting down after months of pressure from public health. This supposedly research based group was promoting the fact that obesity was created by lack of exercise and not diet. Of course, that meant that if you did exercise you could drink all the Coke you want!
But Coca-Cola is still everywhere. It was a partner of the Rio Olympic games. It is also prevalent in triathlon where it sponsors teams and some very good athletes such as team Bravo with Rachel Joyce. It also sponsors the HITS triathlon series, and the list goes on.
Now to answer the question: is Coke a Sports Drink? Well believe it or not Coke has been the subject of multiple scientific papers. There are three things that makes Coke interesting: sugar content, caffeine content and carbonation. Let’s look at these.
Coke has way too much sugar! If you look at the label Coca-Cola has 104g of high fructose corn syrup per 32oz. Compare it to 56g of dextrose (glucose) per 32oz in Gatorade, and 18g-22g of glucose per 32 oz in Osmo and Skratch (And you thought these did not have any sugar? Sorry to break the news)
What is exactly high fructose corn syrup? I’m sure you’ve heard about that it is creating the epidemics of obesity. Maybe, but the reality is that any sugar consumed in too much quantities will do that and HFCS is no worse than table sugar or even honey. The only difference is that the HFCS contained in Coca-Cola has 55% Fructose/45% Glucose compared to table sugar who has a 50/50 content.
Fructose enters the body via a different receptor and is metabolized differently, but it does not raise insulin as much. It might be a good thing if in small quantities but the liver can only take so much before it transforms it to fat. Too much fructose could also cause more stomach upset in athletes.
Glucose, the other part of the HFCS, can definitely lead you onto the sugar roller-coaster if absorbed in too high quantities. The sugar roller coaster is a concept in which when the glucose level in the plasma is very high, the body reacts to it by bringing it way down, which could lead to crashing.
Also because the sugar concentration in Coke is high, the stomach will need to draw water in so the sugar can get absorbed in the gut.
Tip: When drinking Coke during a race, aim for no more than 2oz (two gulps) every 10-15 minutes so you don’t get on the sugar roller-coaster. Of course, if you have 45 min or less left well go for it, it does not really matter at that point and you just want to finish strong. Remember also to drink water with it to dilute the sugars and think about other electrolytes as Coke does not have much.
Caffeine is a potent ergogenic for sports. However, the recommended dose is about 1-2 mg/pounds to be effective. This dose is most likely effective for reducing RPE and sensation of pain as well as increase fat burning. But smaller doses have shown an effect on waking up the brain as at the end of a long race. Coke has only 2.8mg/oz of caffeine wile Red Bull for example has a bit more with 9 mg/oz. Still not a lot but might be enough to “wake” you up.
Tip: If you are looking for a real caffeine boost, Coke might not be the best. Red Bull is a little better but not by much unless you drink the whole thing (hello sugar roller coaster). Instead try caffeine pills.
Although most studies have shown an effect with defizzed Coke, there is something to say about the bubble effect. The bubble effect has never studied it but I have my suspicions…
Two studies looked at the effect of carbonation on gastric emptying and performance. Nothing bad to be reported here. But it is important to note that adding carbonation to a drink decreases the pH significantly and may have an effect on soothing the stomach as it could get rid of some unwanted gut bacteria that could be developing during long and hot endurance events. Also, carbonation may stimulate neuro receptors in the mouth, which could potentially prevent cramping.
Tip: If carbonation makes you feel good during a race, go for it. There are no detriments to it and maybe some advantages. You don’t have to have Coke but plain bubbly water might work too.
Like everything in life nothing is just evil or good and Coca-Cola might have its place in endurance sports!