Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Panorama on sports drinks

A month or so ago Panorama ran a programme on sports products (drinks, shoes, supplements) and really I had no intention of writing about it. The conclusion that we are oversold the benefits of these products is not startling and the style (which now seems to be the default for factual programmes) of having the presenter as an active participant, undergoing test, whilst making dramatic statements was a little tedious - so I didn't feel like saying anything.  But that was before things warmed up with a bit of academic venom.

Mark Burnley wrote this response and his lack of regard for Tim Noakes is quite obvious. Tim Noakes has replied and so we have a dispute about hydration and reputation that has a certain amount of animus but leaves me, as an outsider, feeling there is something else going on and I lack a bit of background. It probably relates to claims by Noakes that his work on the dangers of over drinking were suppressed by people and organisations in thrall to the sports drinks industry (in other words a conspiracy) and people on the other side thinking their integrity had been impugned. As they are all big boys and can take care of themselves they can get on with their fight. I'm not too interested in their relative personal honour, my concern is with the advice given to and the understanding of mid and back of the pack runners. This subject the Panorama programme addressed.

It was not "one of the most biased programme I've ever seen" neither was it a hatchet job on sports science. It was about the marketing of sports products and the way exaggerated claims might create a false impression of what was necessary for exercise. It stated quite clearly in the introduction that ⅕ of us go to the gym and 12 million take part in sport so their is an eager market for sports products and so they wanted to examine the claims made by companies. It was not an evaluation of sports science as a subject but about how science based claims were over leveraged.  In the case of sports drinks, the fact that they are sold in supermarkets and shifted in quantities far in excess of the number of endurance sessions suggests a number of people either like the taste (and are therefore drinking too much sugar) or believe they are necessary when they are not. In that context the programme's message that unless you are going long water is fine seems uncontroversial. Use of the drinks was not dismissed out of hand (they said they worked for athletes like Mo Farah and were good for endurance) but there was a concern that an exaggerated impression of their effectiveness and an overemphasis on hydration might lead to over drinking.

This is important because hyponatremia has caused death in some marathons and it has been the case, in the recent past, that marathon runners have been encouraged to drink as often and as much as possible - advice that cause this condition. (I have been to a marathon training camp where such advice was given). Although the official guidelines are much more conservative, old ideas can be persistent, especially if they are simple and to the point. 'Drink as much as you can' is easy to remember and act upon in a race and so hangs around. The importance of 'drink according to your thirst'  is not only that it is safer but also it is just as simple and easy to act upon. It therefore has a chance of replacing the older message. I thought the programme got this across quite effectively.

One of the Oxford scientists made an important point. The claim that performance deteriorates significantly if you dehydrate by 2% of bodyweight ("just" 2% in the Powerade literature) is widespread and oft repeated but in a marathon you can't action it. You cannot know how much you have lost at any one time, so out of fear of losing too much you will overcompensate. When you are running you work on simple rules of thumb and if you believe not drinking enough will be bad you will do all you can to make sure that doesn't happen. The operational understanding should be reversed: if you drink too much bad things could happen with the consequence that errors would be on the side of caution. A different mindset and one counter to a deep-seated cultural outlook: that if something is good then more is better (which is perhaps why drinks companies are so successful).

I'm sure there were some contributions to the programme that were edited out, perhaps they talked about optimum levels of hydration and and conflicting information. I don't know. I'm sure they would have been interesting if it had been a Horizon on the current state of scientific knowledge (and that would be a programme I would like to see) but this was Panorama. It was primarily about marketing distortions or myths and the way big companies can influence  our attitudes. Sometimes it doesn't matter very much but sometimes it does; but as information transfer is increasingly mediated by corporations we need to be ever more vigilant of the consequences. It is an important subject.

So there you have it. I saw a different programme to Mark Burnley. I saw something aimed at the more casual exerciser and general public. It looked at the science but only to the extent it was used to justify marketing claims and it was not about the overall state of that science. I didn't think it was great but neither did I think it terrible. I would however like to give this assurance as an outsider: I really did not come away with the impression that "sports science research was being conducted by either clueless muppets or industry shills"

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