Sports drinks can reduce fatigue and bolster your immune system

Sport drinks can help you ride longer and boost your immune system  Credit: Allsport
It's common knowledge among cyclists that the use of sports drinks before and during long cycling provides an energy advantage. But recent research is also showing that sports drinks can help reduce the long-term stress of hard training, especially during the cold and flu season.

Long rides not only stress the muscles of your legs and your cardiovascular system, but it also suppress your immune system for several hours after the ride. However, recent research by Dr. David Nieman and coworkers from Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, has shown that immune stress can be lowered when a sports drink is consumed every 15 minutes during several hours of hard cycling.

Dr. Nieman's research has shown that one of the markers of endurance cycling is an increase in certain types of white blood cells. Nieman found that the increases in three types of white blood cells was attenuated when the subjects in the study drank a sports drink versus an artificially-flavored placebo drink.

The research team also investigated the exercise response to cortisol, a hormone that when released in excessive amounts after hard exercise can lead to muscle soreness and stress on the immune system.

Nieman's research found that cortisol's release was lower after activities such as hard cycling when the subjects consumed a carbohydrate sports drink during exercise.

"Our research shows that sports drinks not only provide carbohydrate energy during exercise, but support the link between sports drinks and less stress to the immune system," says Nieman.

"Carbohydrate drinks of about 6% to 10% carbohydrate (most commercial energy drinks are within this range) consumed during cycling will not eliminate the stress of cycling, but our research and the work of others show they can reduce the increase of several by-products of stress and hard exercise," adds Nieman.

Nieman gives the following recommendations to help support your immune system during and after hard training and reduce the incidence of sickness, colds and flu:

  • Use a carbohydrate beverage before, during and after long rides or unusually hard training sessions. Drink about eight ounces every 15 to 20 minutes during while riding to not only provide carbohydrate energy, but to help support your immune system.

  • Eat a balanced diet to help insure adequate vitamin and mineral levels in your body. The intake of up to 600 mg per day of vitamin C for several days before a long ride or century may benefit cyclists. Vitamin C may help reduce the oxidative or free radical stress to your immune system.

  • Ensure that you get adequate sleep during periods of hard training. Lack of adequate rest and recovery has been linked to a suppressed immune system.

  • Avoid over training and chronic fatigue.

  • Try to lower other stresses in your life. Mental and emotional stress from work, family matter and other stresses in your life have been linked to a suppressed immune function and increased risk of respiratory tract infection.

  • Avoid rapid weight losses while training hard. Decreased body weight is another stress that has links to negative immune changes.

  • Consider getting a flu shot if you will be training hard or competing during the winter months.

  • While training hard or tapering for an important event, limiting your exposure to individuals with illness is also prudent. Hard training over extended periods of time has been shown to be linked to a chronic suppression of specific white blood cells (neutrophils), which are part of your body's first line of defense in fighting infection.

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