Improve Athletic Performance: Cold Beverages?

When I think back to the days that I used to compete in bicycle racing, I can certainly remember the effects of running out of water during a race. Back in those days, the average racing bicycle weighed about 21 lbs, so deciding how much water to carry was always an important factor. It’s still probably an important consideration today.

Back in those days… It’s hard not to start feeling old when you write that phrase. Don’t worry, I’ll spare telling you about how I used to wear an onion around my belt. It was the style back then. No, I’m not quite as old as Grandpa Simpson. I’m actually still younger than Lance Armstrong.

Granted, at bigger events or when I was representing the Alberta Provincial Cycling team, there were opportunities to refill on water. Thinking back though, I can still vividly remember one time at the Canadian National Championships where I still suffered from dehydration.

The race itself was in Brandon Manitoba on roughly a 12 km circuit. In total, there were something like just 12 total laps since it was a junior race (I was 17 at the time). It was a hot day and the humidity was so thick you could cut the air with a knife.

One of our team members was unfortunately sick and unable to compete in the race. He decided to help out with handing out water bottles.

I guess in life, there are always going to be people who seem to have an instant dislike towards you for no apparent reason. Paul, was one of those few people in my case. He was also my teammate who was sick and helping in the water refill zone. Needless to say, every time I entered the zone, I shouted for water. What I ended up getting was a piss warm bottle of water mixed with Coke. If there was anything else in the bottle, I’ll probably never know, thankfully.

Early in the race, I managed to get in a small breakaway with four other cyclists. At the time, we had a member on our team who was just coming off a surprising win of an international stage race–Miles McDonald (at Le Tour d’Abitibi). When I say surprising, it was a week-long stage race in Quebec that featured Team USA, Team Italy, Team France, and the list goes on. Did I mention that he was on Team Alberta (A province in Canada) and Team Canada was also at the event?

Cold Beverages for Improving Athletic Performance

Back on topic… I managed to join this group by bridging up to them. My plan at the time was to neutralize the breakaway. Not that I thought about it that much at the time, but it actually was a great strategy. My being in the breakaway meant that Miles could sit in the pack without being expected to work or help the chase group. At the same time, I had no intentions of making the breakaway work, so I could just sit at the back of it.

For those who’re less familiar with cycling, that’s basically how you shut down a small breakaway group of cyclists. By sitting at the back, the other cyclists get annoyed and it disrupts their attempt. At higher speeds, wind resistance is significant and drafting (following closely behind the wheel of the rider in front of you) drastically reduces your wind resistance.

Okay, so it made sense at the time. However, within half a lap, a cyclist by the name of Mark Walters powered up a long climb and blew two of the riders off the back. It was just three of us now.

Usually in races, early breakaway attempts don’t work out very well. A small group of cyclists battling the wind does far more work than a large group (pack or peloton).

Maybe it was the dehydration or just pride kicking in, but at some point my strategy changed. We had enough of a lead, that thoughts of finishing on the podium started to enter my mind.

Fast forward till the final four laps of the race. I was feeling the combined effects of the heat and the lack of water during the race. Though there was still over 40 kilometers left in the race, Mark attacked again on the long climb.

Neither myself nor Sebastien (Team Quebec) could think of matching Mark’s pace and we both were left behind. In truth, Mark was the force powering our breakaway and with him gone, our hopes of placing in the medals was looking dire.

I was surprised at the time that Mark attacked with so many kilometers left in the race, but he probably realized that we were dead weight. To make matters worse, my coach gave Miles the green light to help chase since I no longer had a chance of winning.

Our once enormous lead was eroding fast and the cramps and fatigue associated with dehydration was kicking in. I got to the point that I didn’t think I would be able to even finish the race at all. Then something happened…

Sebastian, the rider on an opposing team (Team Quebec), asked me what was wrong. I had nothing to lose or hide, so I told him. Knowing that he alone wouldn’t be able to hang on for a medal, he gave me his water bottle.

At that point, once dehydration set in during a race, you can manage it, but you can’t hope to reverse it. I endured enormous suffering to hang on and finish the race. Sebastian easily took the sprint for 2nd and I placed third. Our lead which was once minutes had eroded to just seconds by the finish line.

An unexpected third place in the Canadian National Cycling Championship Road Race was a nice way to cap-off my time in that sport. If you missed it, the moral of the story, of course, is that water is the most important ergogenic aid.

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Study:  Cold beverage improves athletic performance

A new study published by researchers from the University of Sidney, looked at the effect of different temperatures of beverages on core temperature and endurance cycling performance. The results were published in the Journal of Sports Sciences.

A small sample of seven recreational cyclists were recruited for this study (average age approximately 33 years old). The participants were given three different beverages during 90 minute cycling ergometer testing. This included either a thermoneutral beverage, cold beverage (4’C), or thermoneutral beverage with 30 ml of ice puree every five minutes.

The conditions: 28 ‘C, 70% relative humidity

The beverage: 7.4% carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drink (PoweradeTM Isotonic, Coca-Cola Amatil, Australia)

Results:

  • Participants performed significantly more work during the performance test in the cold trial vs the thermoneutral trial (263+59 kJ vs. 252+62 kJ; P=0.004).
  • Total work in the ice trial (256+75 kJ) was not different than in the thermoneutral trial.
  • Mean absolute temperature change was lower in the cold trial as well:
  • Mean absolute temperature change during steady-state exercise (Table I) was significantly lower in the cold (P=0.03) but not in the ice versus the thermoneutral trial (P=0.21).

Conclusions:

Performance over the 15-min performance test was improved by approximately 4.9+2.4% in the cold versus the thermoneutral trial. Performance was not improved in the ice trial and a much larger sample size would be required.

Drinking  a cold beverage resulted in nearly a 5% improvement in performance during the cycling ergometer performance test. As well, the cold beverage resulted in less change in body temperature / heat storage.

For those who compete in endurance sports in warm temperatures, it’s possible that cooling your beverage could result in performance benefits. These study results suggest that an ice puree is not effective.

Reference:

  1. Burdon C, O’Connor H, Gifford J, Shirreffs S, Chapman P, Johnson N. Effect of drink temperature on core temperature and endurance cycling performance in warm, humid conditions. J Sports Sci. 2010 Aug 3:1-10.

5 thoughts on “Improve Athletic Performance: Cold Beverages?

  1. I’ve heard mixed reviews about the cold water debate.

    Most common is that cold water burns more calories, because of the need to warm the water before digestion.

    The second is that cold water will cause athletes to cramp, and reduce their performance. Theory is that, people warm up to operate at peak efficiency and cooling the body reduces your peak efficiency.

    While I am not convinced of the second one, and can’t find too much to support it, I just think anything tastes better when cold.

    Toshi O

  2. I find the difference between the cold drink & the ice puree the most interesting aspect of this study.

    I think everyone reading would agree that a cold beverage is more refreshing than a warm one – we may not “know” why, but we would all agree.

    If both the cold bev and the iced bev are similar temps, why the difference in performance???

    1. Doug, I agree that it’s an interesting discrepancy. From the study itself, the cold drink consisted of a 7.4% carbohydrate electrolyte solution (aka Powerade) at a dose of 2.3 ml per kg every 10 minutes during the trial. The solution was kept at 4 degrees Celsius.

      As for the combination of ice / thermoneutral beverage, it consisted of an equivalent volume of the same carbohydrate electrolyte solution. One difference was that this was divided into a portion consumed as a thermoneutral beverage every 10 minutes as well as a portion consumed as an ice puree every five minutes (30 grams of frozen carbohydrate electrolyte solution). For the ice puree, it was -1 degree Celsius and the participants held it in their mouths for a full 30 seconds.

      If my estimation is correct, the combined group consumed the ice puree at roughly 1/3 of their total fluid consumption. This combination did not seem to be as effective at lowering body temperature as the cold drink in their study.

      There were numerous limitations in this study including lack of blinding, sample sample size, and others.

  3. Interesting read. I have also heard of the calorie burning benefits associated with cold water Tosi. To expand on that thought, when it comes to athletic performance, I am surprised cold water outperformed when compared to warm water. The reason i say this is in ref to what Toshi mentioned – delayed absorption. The fact that the body has to warm the water before actually absorbing it would make me think warm/room temp water would be ideal – when it comes to hydration. I think the main thing to keep in mind here is increased performance and hydration are two different things. The steady intake of fluid in this experiment probably controlled for such a variable. It would be interesting to see how warm / cold fluid intake compared under infrequent intake.

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