Dispelling a myth: Elite runners drink Soda/Coke/Energy drinks

I can remember at one time as a young runner being told along the lines, “You shouldn’t drink Coke. It will wind you… it’s bad for your joints… and it will make your bones brittles.” It’s amazing this sort of young-runner-folklore continues to get passed down from generation-to-generation, as I still hear this or get asked about it by younger runners! I still hear club/high school level coaches telling their athletes this as well.

So…. I’m going to dispell the myth– elite runners drink soda/coke/energy drinks. Yes, sorry to break the hearts of millions of high schoolers who needlessly gave up soda cause their coach said it’s bad.

First off, Coca-Cola has been the longest continuous sponsor of the Olympics, going back to 1928. There was a push at the Olympics last year to get Coca-Cola banned (and McDonalds too), saying it sets a bad example for children. Well, the message of combining sports WITH Coca-Cola should be, as taken from the book Once a Runner, “If the furnace is hot enough, it will burn anything.”

Coca-Cola is a beloved, world-wide beverage that’s ubiquitous at road races. I don’t know how many times I’ve been to a race, sat at a lunch/dinner table with Africans/Russians/International athletes, and they’re ALL drinking Coca Cola or some sort of carbonated beverage. They LOVE soda and drink it with meals! When I lived and trained for a bit with my Kenyan-American friend, Janet, she had several shelves of assorted, bottled sodas and likes to drink it with meals. My elite marathoner friend, Molly, loves to drink diet Mountain Dew (and I’ve heard others swear by diet soda too) [Edit: Molly reminded me that she has two diet Sunkists before every morning run, and sometimes more throughout the day]. Personally, sometimes I crave a Coke/Pepsi/Ginger ale after a run, esp. during the summer. It’s not like I’m drinking 2-3 cans a day… more like 2-3 cans a week. As with everything, you should consume in moderation.

Marathoning great, Tom Fleming, at the ’74 Boston Marathon getting Cola syrup from his Dad at mile 16

Back in the day (and many still do), elite marathoners would defizz Coke  (or use Cola syrup, which you may be able to find at a pharmacy or the link online) and consume it in races for both the sugar and caffeine. It’s highly debatable on whether there’s any detriment to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) vs sugar cane (which was used in the past). If it matters to you and you’d prefer sugar cane soda, you can look for something like Mexican/Throwback Pepsi. Some of the Hanson runners make up a concoction of Gatorade Endurance Formula+Red Bull, for a caffeine boost later in the race. To say that “Coke/soda will wind you”… when many of the best runners in the world are drinking it DURING a marathon… is total nonsense!

As far as the “your bones will go brittle” that swirls around the internet… well, if you’re drinking Coke in place of other ~Calcium rich drinks/foods, then you might have a problem! It’s just sugar and caffeine though- might be more of a problem for your teeth than your bones. Certainly, everything should be consumed in moderation (which some research says not more than three 12 oz sodas/day ). For what it’s worth… when I was in grad school and we had Bone Lab meetings every week, Dr. Turner (Ph.D., who’s a World-reknown expert on bone health) would come to the meetings with a 32 ounce cup of Pepsi. Nearly every time I saw him he was always carrying his cup. Mind you, researchers are about 10-20 years ahead of what MD doctors know. If it’s Ok to him, it must be Ok for the rest of us!

Magic Bullet, for making fruit smoothies

Are there better/healthier drink alternatives to drinking a soda, whether before/during/after? Possibly, but it would require a side-by-side drink comparison. A study in Spain found that drinking beer is better after a workout than water– it’s not surprising to see beer being served post-race, alongside soda. Beer consumed in moderation is also found to be good for bone health . I previously did a blog post about Post-run recovery foods and beverages. Personally… sometimes I crave a Coke… sometimes I crave a beer… sometimes I drink OJ with liquid iron… and other times I drink a glass of lactose-free chocolate milk. If it’s after a hard workout, I’ll make a fruit smoothie with raw eggs.

Lastly, to end of the debate on whether it’s Coke vs Pop vs Soda… it totally depends on your geographical location!

 


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Comments

  1. I’m kind of upset to see this post. When I started losing weight last year, the first thing I ditched was the Diet Coke. ALL sodas are nothing but sludge, whether they be diet or fully fueled. They provide absolutely no nutritional value and frankly, I’m amazed that doctor in grad school was drinking Pepsi! Almost every doctor I’ve ever encountered has said nothing but bad things about soda.

    There’s a reason Coke is used as a de-icer and a battery acid cleaner! Just imagine what it’s doing to the inside of your body!

    BTW, Mt. Dew products contain a chemical (can’t remember the name) that’s a flame retardant. PepsiCo just announced last week that it would remove it from orange flavored Gatorade but has no plans to do so with the rest of its products!

    • runcamille says:

      Hi Sean, as I said in my post, “If the furnace is hot enough, it will burn anything.” Certainly, if someone is trying to lose weight, trying to create a caloric deficit is needed, regardless of what’s cut out. Good point though about diet sodas– there’s all kinds of research out there about how bad “fake sugars” are, esp. for the brain. But as far as “real sugar”, or even HFCS being bad? The bottom line is the body metabolizes it to glucose, and even fructose is converted to glucose (through a different mechanism). It gets a bad rap, and as with anything else, should be consumed in moderation. Lastly “all the other chemicals in it are bad”– I’ll leave it up to peer-reviewed research on PubMed to verify fact from fiction. I’m sure there’s lots of other practical purposes for fresh foods in the refrigerator too!

      • runcamille says:

        Oh yeah, researchers are 10-20 years ahead of what MD doctors know– Dr. Turner (PhD) might be the single smartest person I know, and he approves of Pepsi!

      • Camille,

        Given the research about the ‘fake sugars’ Id argue that its actually better for athletes to drink real full sugar coke than the diet variety.

        @Sean, If your struggling to actually eat enough calories to cover the amount your burning off with training then a high sugar drink can be a welcome change to pouring even more Honey on your porridge.

        Although personally i prefer beer to coke ;) … and here in Germany its cheaper too.

        • Actually, it’s not the sugar that’s bad. You’re right, the “fake” sugars are even worse. The problem with soft drinks is that they contain various other chemicals that are just horrible for you. Also, in Germany, and most of the rest of the world other than the US, the formula for Coke and other soft drinks varies. The US allows many preservatives that are illegal in other developed countries.

        • runcamille says:

          Hi Paul, totally agree about real sugar being better for you than fake sugar. There was a study out a few weeks ago saying that those consuming diet drinks are more likely to develop diabetes than those consuming real soda. The reason is because diet drinks make you crave more sugar (and I guess ultimately end up consuming more sugar too, ~sweets/deserts/candy!). Ironically, I have a surprising number of elite runner friends who consume diet soda… so maybe the diet soda makes them consume more sugar (sweets, candy) and consequently have more quick energy to aid running performance?!

          That’s pretty awesome that beer is cheaper than soda in Germany! :)

  2. Great article! Makes me feel a little bit more at ease as I have noticed cravings for pop (I’m from Ohio) since increasing my mileage last year. I think a little in moderation helps as when you are training at hgh levels and in tune with your body, you are more aware of giving it what it wants or maybe needs.

    • runcamille says:

      Totally with ya! I’m all about intuitive eating (and drinking!)! If the body craves a Coke, not gonna kill ya! You need simple sugars post-run.

  3. The only time I’ve been into Coke was when I was pregnant all three times! I am somewhat of a health food junkie and hadn’t had any (regular anyway) Coke in years, but once I was pregnant I craved it, but only from the fountain with ice :) It’s funny how I remembered the taste from so many years before. I have to say it’s not the carbonation, sugar or caffeine that gets me, it’s the chemical crap like carmel color, etc. that I really don’t want in my body. The furnace can burn through the sugar, but can it burn through carcinogens? I agree a Coke, Mt. Dew every once in a while is fine, but even a weekly soda is a no-go for me. Then again, if I LOVED it, perhaps it would be worth the “risk.” (Here’s a link to an article about caramel coloring if you’re interested http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/03/07/148075310/coca-cola-modifies-caramel-color-to-avoid-cancer-warning-label)

  4. We all have to listen to our bodies, something we all can agree on. I was drinking a diet coke or two a day and didn’t think anything of it. However, I was having a hard time breathing when running like mild asthma or like I just wasn’t able to get enough oxygen.

    My doctor said it could be ‘exercise induced asthma’ and gave me a prescription inhaler which helped but still never really solved the problem. A friend mentioned the carbonated beverages so I stopped drinking them as a test. After about 2-3 weeks my breathing changed dramatically and I no longer felt difficulty getting enough oxygen. About 6 months later I started drinking coke again and got the same symptoms! My body is the final word for me on this issue! No more carbonated drinks for me. And I agree with other posters, soft drinks in general just really aren’t healthy because of what they contain. Sponsers or no.

    • Hi Rick, maybe the soda gives you acid reflux? That’s part of the reason for defizzing it if you drink it during a race. I’m a bit prone to acid reflux (which definitely can impact breathing!), so I try to reserve it for drinking after a run (for the simple sugars) rather than before. I got acid reflux during the OKC Memorial Marathon last year, and I had asthma-like breathing problems and chest pain and had to stop and drink fluids. Otherwise, the placebo effect can come into play– the mind-gut connection.

      • Very possible. It’s the same way with gels, I have used GU from the very beginning and it still gives me the most benefit. Others I know swear off GU (and love soda!). It’s all part of the training process I suppose to find out what works for you and what does not, even though we may never be able to pin-down a reason why.

        I enjoyed listening to your MTA podcast interview on my run today and reading your blog. Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge and experience with us!

        • runcamille says:

          Interesting! My mid-race acid reflux seemed to occur after drinking the race’s Powerade, and then I couldn’t get my Powergels to go down! It was the worst feel, having all that ‘stuck in my chest’ and not able to breath! I know now when I get that feeling and what’s causing it.

          Thanks, glad you enjoyed the interview! It was fun to do!

  5. Hi Camille,

    I have read several of your posts online before and love your blog. I have learned a lot from reading your other posts…The first really interesting article I read on your site that helped me was how you became a minimalist runner…

    I just wanted to tell you that the few moments it took me to read this erased a TON of guilt for me…

    I am just an average middle of the pack 4hr marathon runner and jog abt 60 mpw. I’m currently training for my 43rd full marathon and I drink regular Coke on a pretty frequent basis.

    I can’t tell you how many times my coworkers or a few “well meaning” non-runners have made me feel guilty for drinking regular Coke (or any soda/white pasta for that matter)…

    It’s hard for me explain to people what 10-12 hrs a week of jogging and lifting does to your body’s demand for calories in general…

    Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you so much for posting this!!!

    • runcamille says:

      Hi Charlie! Yeaaa, glad to make you feel less guilty! :) I just drank a Coke myself for lunch cause I was driving somewhere after a run and needed some quick energy! It’s definitely not going to hurt you in moderation.

  6. Just to add, we often forget what exactly high fructose corn syrup is. In essence it’s a combination of fructose and glucose. The ratio of each depends on the manufacturer, and in the case of the more popular brands I’m unsure what that ratio is.

    Research has found that fructose does indeed increase athletic performance. Research has also found that the adverse metabolic instances associated with high fructose corn syrup consumption may be negated by exercise. There is a study from 1987 which seems that it debunks athletic benefits of high fructose corn syrup in any context of phase of competition/training, but much can be said about its methods.

    Some will argue the “chemicals” in soda are bad for you, therefor it has no benefits and as such shouldn’t be consumed. The biggest culprit is sodium benzoate, and anybody who’s been following research will argue that the University of Patras study clearly makes a connection between sodium benzoate and chemical carcinogenesis, but considering the lack of connection to any species apart from a freshwater free-living ciliate protozoa and the small concentrations of sodium benzoate in soda, it’s just not a convincing argument. I could argue running outside is bad for you because of inhaled chemicals, therefor you shouldn’t run. Same argument at a different scale, both equally absurd.

    The reality is soda, in athletes who adhere to a regular regiment, and also taken in moderation, does have benefits. Like everything else in life, such as walking by cars, it has adverse affects. The minimal impact is negligible. We don’t sanely argue walking outside is harmful due to the inhaled chemicals and risk of being hit by a car, but we somehow sanely argue that soda is similar to a plague that should be avoided based on the use of the word “chemicals” and “high fructose corn syrup”.

  7. I googled recovery food and came across your site. Thank you for great articles. Whenever I used to go out for a long run, I would take some cash so that I could stop by a 7-11 for some gatorade or water but I found out that coke made me feel a whole lot better (and I used to get such a kick from having that harsh throat hit when I guzzled down a mouthful of coke after a long run). Then I read that 4-methylimidazole in caramel coloring in coke had shown to cause cancer in lab mice. Usually if some stuff does something to mice, I usually blow it off thinking I can probably take a lot more than what those little guys can take. But given a long list of cancer history in my family, I tend to take things very seriously when it comes to cancer. So coke is off my list but I have to admit that I really my coke especially after a long afternoon run.

    • runcamille says:

      Hi YB, have you thought about drinking non-colas? I like to drink Ginger Ale too– very tasty… little more zing than Sprite!

  8. Most posts here seem to be missing the point: Coke/soda can be used as a fuel during an endurance race. Can a food be “bad” in one setting, while beneficial in another? Of course. Running, and its increased metabolic demands, has us runners breaking all kinds of unconventional nutrition axioms. We increase our sodium content in the form of salt, via salt packets, salt capsules, and even potato chips post race. We suck down energy gels (which are 100 calories of pure sugar) to feed ourselves during long endurance events. Should we feed ourselves with energy gels for breakfast on non-run days? Should we eat potato chips as part of our regular daily diet? No, but strangely these “bad for you foods” have a real place in a runners nutritional regimen. I read about an elite runner who uses white bread for pre and post run sandwiches because the white refined contents of white bread metabolize quickly and delivers the simple sugars to her body that she requires in those particular situations. But in no way is this a general endorsement of white bread over whole grain breads.

    My point is this: just because an elite runner fuels their body with the simple sugars of energy gels and coca-cola during a 100 mile race (which is totally appropriate because what the body needs in that situation is simple sugar, not a salad) doesn’t mean everyone else gets to drink more soda while they sit on their duffs and think they are getting a nutritional green light to do so. Any thoughts on that?

    • runcamille says:

      Thanks for commenting Brian– totally agree! I wrote this post to illustrate this point, which non-elites can learn from too. As endurance athletes, we totally “break the rules” on diet, and we have to, to optimally perform! Excesses of salt… sugar… fat. I think for the most part elite athletes are consuming healthy, nutrient-dense diets, but at the end of the day we need calories and need to meet the “extreme” demands on the body. I also consume “white foods” leading up to marathons (which I’ve written about)– you can store up more glycogen vs. fiber-rich grains that make you full (=store up less).

  9. Interesting article. I like the thought that if the furnace burns hot enough it will burn anything. I think that the problem with most people is that the furnace doesn’t burn hot enough for the amount of coke that is consumed. It boils down to it’s all relative and as a few comments have noted, we need to listen to our own bodies and not base our decisions solely on what works for someone else. My current problem is that I still eat like I did when I was at the peak of my athletic pursuits and worked out potentially several hours a day, the only problem is, with an injured shoulder and a demanding work schedule, I haven’t had a regular workout for some time.

    Anyway, interesting article.

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