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Can drinking Coca-Cola be good for cyclists?

Michael Donlevy
20 Sep 2018

Can the all-conquering Coca-Cola be classed as a sports drink? We investigate why it’s drunk by so many pro athletes

Product placement is banned on the BBC, so if this was an episode of Saturday Kitchen we’d be talking about a brown carbonated drink flavoured with an extract of kola nuts. But we’re not the BBC, so let’s call it by its proper name: Coca-Cola.

We could also talk about Pepsi or even Rola Cola, but we’re focusing on Coke for the simple reason that it seems to be the favoured fizzy beverage of the pro cycling ranks. 

Watch any major cycling event and you’ll see riders after the race (sometimes even during it) glugging down a can of Coke.

Which got us thinking – is this just a treat for a job well done, or is there some nutritional or performance value to the world’s most popular soft drink? 

Not always Coca-Cola

Let’s get the bad stuff out the way first. Coke is high in calories thanks to its sugar content, and it contains virtually no electrolytes or minerals.

It’s acidic and carbonated, both of which can increase the risk of stomach problems during exercise. And worse, US studies have shown that people who drink soft drinks regularly have a lower intake of calcium, magnesium and vitamin A.

Yet Coke was popular with athletes in the days before sports drinks, and the love affair continues in cycling, with The Coca-Cola Cycling Team organising charity rides in the US, Wiggle selling Coke-branded bidons and Coca-Cola sponsoring bike hire schemes in Ireland.

‘Even now, you will see riders drinking it on the Tour de France,’ says Mayur Ranchordas, senior lecturer in sport and exercise nutrition and physiology at Sheffield Hallam University.

There’s a reason. ‘It does hydrate and it contains glucose and sucrose, so it’s going to help restore both muscle and liver glycogen,’ says performance nutritionist Drew Price.

Back in the 1990s, the Australian Institute of Sport surveyed 11 of the 19 men’s cycling teams in the US Championships and found that in six of them, every cyclist drank Coke during races.

In four other teams, around two-thirds of the riders drank it, which meant that only one team was Coke-free. It was mainly consumed late in races that lasted between two and six hours, for one main reason: sugar.

A 330ml can of Coca-Cola contains 35g, which is a concentration of nearly 11%. Isotonic sports drinks contain 5-9% because anything above this is believed to inhibit gastric emptying.

‘It’s more concentrated than body fluids, so it absorbs slower than water,’ says Anita Bean, sports nutritionist and author of Food For Fitness.

Yet some research suggests this may not be an issue. The Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis tested eight experienced cyclists using a range of drinks, including a carbonated, 10% carbohydrate concoction similar to Coke.

And while it took longer to empty from the stomach and caused mild wind, the riders didn’t feel discomfort. Even better, the Coke-like fluid improved the riders’ power outputs at the end of their two-hour rides by 8%.

‘Coke is hypertonic,’ says Ranchordas. ‘Hypertonic drinks contain more than 8% carbs and take longer to leave the stomach because of the higher concentration of carbs, so they work over a longer period.’

‘That doesn’t mean it will work for everyone,’ says Bean. ‘Some people do find they suffer from discomfort if they drink carbonated drinks before or during exercise.

'Those bubbles have to come out somehow.’

Price agrees: ‘This might cause issues – for example, reflux – due to the low body angle on the bike. It may also mean you drink less in total, impacting hydration.’

Ranchordas, however, doesn’t believe carbonation has to be an issue. ‘The key is that pros aren’t drinking a lot. You’re talking about a fun-size can [150ml].

'On a stage that lasts six or seven hours, a couple of sips of Coke aren’t going to hurt you. Coke is palatable, and consuming four or five litres of electrolyte drinks and water during a race can get tedious.’ 

Coke is also a source of caffeine, but if you’re hoping for a high-octane hit from a can of the fizzy stuff, you may be disappointed.

‘Caffeine has been shown to reduce the perception of effort and increase endurance, as well as improve concentration so you feel sharper,’ says Bean.

‘But there is only 32mg per 330ml can of Coke – less than in half a cup of coffee – and studies have shown that isn’t enough to have an effect on performance.

'A 70kg cyclist needs around 200mg of caffeine to feel the effects. That would mean drinking rather a lot of Coke.’

More than six cans in fact.

The unreal thing

What it can have is a psychological benefit. ‘It’s the placebo effect where you associate the taste with a benefit,’ says Bean.

‘There have been studies into the “mouth rinse effect”. Take a sip of a sugary drink, swill it around your mouth and spit it out.

'The sugar is sensed by receptors in your mouth that send a signal to your brain, which anticipates the sugar rush and reduces the perception of effort.

'It’s not a physiological effect, but it does have a performance effect.’

‘The caffeine in Coke won’t give you a performance benefit but it will give you a lift,’ Ranchordas agrees. ‘I’m not advocating it as a sports drink – I’ve never seen a rider take more than a few sips.’

Ultimately, cola and other soft drinks are not regarded as good for health, especially for children or sedentary adults, but athletes will quickly burn off the high carbohydrate content.

To avoid gastic issues you could try drinking it flat, or mixing it with water (two parts Coke to one part water) to get the benefits without the fizz.

‘This also reduces the carb content, making it easier to empty from your system,’ says Bean.

‘You could even mix in some amino acids and even creatine, if you’re a sprinter, for extra recovery and performance benefits,’ Price adds.

‘But really, save it for a treat. There are better recovery drinks out there. Look for ones that contain glucose and fructose, and some amino acids or proteins as these work in synergy with the carbs to restore muscle and liver glycogen.’

Mostly athletes drink Coke because they like it. You’re more likely to drink something on a bike if you like the taste, so perhaps it does have its place in your bidon.

That’s up to you and whether your digestive system can tolerate it on a long ride. Just remember not to use Diet Coke, which contains precisely zero carbohydrates, and don't mix it with vodka.

This article first appeared on Cyclist.co.uk in July 2016

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