Monthly Archives: June 2014

The sports drinks don’t work



Not all Lucozade campaigns have been equally inspired…

Anyone running the recent inaugural Hackney half-marathon will have seen that in addition to the regular water stops, the event also offered free energy drinks to all runners after eight miles. It was not just an act of generosity on the part of the manufacturers but a commonplace piece of advertising, of a par with Lucozade’s launch of two Brazilian flavours to tie in with the World Cup. And while Lucozade is not one of the official sponsors of the tournament in Brazil, anyone watching could hardly miss the images of footballers drinking vast quantities of other, branded sports drinks left conveniently just beyond the edges of the pitch.

Sports drinks are big business: Lucozade’s sales in the UK are running at around £450 million per year, or around £9 per adult in the country. But if you are a runner; will a sport drink boost your performance?

I was encouraged to try sports drinks by a physiotherapist who I was seeing for chronic stiffness in my calves. “It’s muscle cramps”, he explained to me, “if you are short of sodium in a particular muscle, it stiffens. So it must be that what you need to do is increase your salt intake. That’s what the sports drinks are for.” From the moment that I received this advice, I doubted it was suitable for me: in my early thirties I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and also found to have (modestly) high cholestrol. Most of the men in my family have had heart disease, for anyone with this history, increased salt really isn’t what your body needs.

Running is ideally a low-tech sport; part of its appeal is precisely that it doesn’t require an apparatus of equipment or clothing. You can take part happily without enabling anyone else to make money from you. Every time you come across a “running gadget”, whether it is Nike’s cushioned heels which originally launched the jogging boom, energy gels, foam rollers or whatever, scepticism is right. If we’ve always needed sports drinks, then why did we wait for a Lucozade or a Gatorade to invent them: why wasn’t there an equivalent years ago?

But energy drinks are becoming more pervasive, and it’s hard to resist the micro-advertisement effect of watching other runners gulping down a sports drink immediately on finishing a race.

Sports drinks’ selling point is their capacity to replace lost electrolytes (i.e. salt). “Electrolytes help to replace the sodium lost in sweat”, Lucozade website tells you, “which you are sure to do when exercising moderately. Lucozade Sport helps to replenish these lost stores and help you to retain fluid.”

Of course it is right that people sweat on either moderate or extreme exercise. I run in a black cap and I can see for myself the salt I’ve lost at the end of my daily 45-60 minute runs. It forms a permanent white band around the inside of the cap’s rim.

But, as well as losing salt, when you run your body is also losing water. If a person is losing both salt and water while running, so long as they drink water to compensate, there is no reason for their salt levels to become unbalanced. As it happens, a typical runner has not lower but higher salt concentrations in their body at the end of a long run. If that sounds unlikely, the authors of this website claim that in research studies done on runners at the Comrades ultra-marathon in 2005 and 2006, the sodium levels in runners’ bodies were higher at the end of the event than the start. The sodium in an energy drink would not assist these runners; rather, it would throw their bodies modestly further out of balance.

The Comrades marathon is a 56-mile race through the hillsides of Kwa-Zulu Natal. If the people running that distance have no need for energy drinks then you can pretty sure that they are quite useless for the typical 30-miles-a-week-or-less runner.

The answer to my physio’s suggestion is a simple thought experiment. When a person is short of salt they may indeed suffer cramps, but the cramps they suffer will not be specific but spread throughout the body. Now think about where a runner feels cramps, typically in their lower legs, not throughout their body. This is a sign that the runner is tired in the muscles they have used the most. But if the cramps are just in the calves, it’s not a sign of salt loss.

I am not suggesting that sports drinks are wholly useless. They contain a fair amount of sugar which the body burns during exercise. But for a low cost alternative try adding a table spoon of generic cordial to your water bottle when you run. It will be a tenth of the price, taste nigh on identical, and it will do you as much good.

Running for freedom: Mahienour al-Massry


A court in Egypt today is hearing the appeal of Mahienour al-Massry, lawyer, Revolutionary Socialist, and award-winning human rights activist. She was brought to court in a cage and seated between two policemen (above). Mahienour is on charge for having protested outside a court in Alexandria last December. While she was protesting outside the court, the police officers charged with the brutal beating and murder of blogger Khaled Said were on trial inside.

Under Egypt’s unique combination of military and civilian law protests without police permission are unlawful. Mahienour’s punishment, which she is appealing, was a two-year jail term.

Mahienour is a well-known figure in Alexandria, where she has been at the forefront of a dozen local campaigns: in support of strikes, against sexual violence, for housing for the poor, against corruption, military trials, for the right to public space, for land reclamation, against climate change, for Syrian refugees. A recent article by Mahienour’s friend Amro Ali recalls one characteristic moment in an unusually rich, activist life:

It was June 2010, and for the first time activists in Alexandria were demonstrating in public in memory of Khaled Said. The protest was being held at Cleopatra Hamamat train station; and at its start there were only 20 people there. In Egypt, security forces have a habit of isolating small protests behind high portable fences, hiding the demonstrators from the public, as a prelude to arresting them. Mahienour could see that she and her activists were on the verge of being trapped.

Mahienour took the initiative, and ran out of the kettle, holding a megaphone and shouting slogans in memory of Said. As she escaped, others followed her, and she was joined by demonstrators arriving at the scene late. Together, they ran through the streets of central Alexandria, calling on residents and local workers to join them. At first they were 20 people, then 50, one hundred, and finally 300 people. It was now the biggest protest Alexandria had seen for several years.

The security forces attempted to follow, but could not prevent the protesters from running into and occupying Medhat Seif al-Yazal Khalifa Street, where Khlaed Said had died earlier that very month. A week later there were 1000 people. By January 2011, it was the police who were fleeing from the demonstrators.

Mahienour would continue to play a prominent role in protests in Alexandria through the whole revolution.

Mahienour appeal has now been adjourned with a verdict due on 20 July. The next time you run, spare a thought for Mahienour.

Thoughts on Running



A guest post by Anna Mobbs

Black, narrow and muddy, the path ahead curves enticingly around the next tree. I can smell the elder trees, blackbird and thrush sing about their space, the drone of a high plane . A smile spreads from my heart to my face. I know that for the next 20 minutes there will be no people around me, I can enjoy the challenge of uneven ground as I quicken my pace and feel my thoughts drift like the seed husks floating through the air.

Since running longer distances  I have felt the London I live in kaleidoscope. Places I rarely bother to go to have become minutes away. I have also felt my neighbourhood expand as I have explored the rivers near my home on foot. There have been moments of beauty and surprise (a naked runner! Only seen in fog or summer dawn)

3 years ago I tried running as the cheapest exercise available to get fit.  I ran one mile and then my legs refused to go further.

I joined a running club which was aimed at people like me, the coach is an inspiring woman, for £1 every time you turned up she encouraged distance, then speed, and tricep dips and squats, and or sit ups. Sunday morning exercise in the snow, rain, sun or gloom she was there and the women who were also there run in solidarity with each other. I stopped.

A year later I started again, this time I was running at that group and joined a group at work. This exercise thing was good. I started running home with a colleague. The summer came, I nearly expired in the combination of pollution and heat. I stopped.

Then at the new year David Renton coaxed me out of my torpor and with another friend we ran around a bit of Bath. It was not that difficult. I ran again on my own and then the Hackney half marathon was announced and as it was running near my front door I thought why not?

Well I can tell you why not. Longer distance running at the pace I achieve means quite a long time with your own thoughts. As a full time public sector worker and mother of two you’d think a bit of time to think would be good, but actually I was having the same thoughts again and again … A bit like when I experience insomnia.

Then there have been the grumbling of my hips and knees, sometimes hurting so much I have not been able to sleep despite fatigue. Recently the heat has made running uncomfortable and some days I have set off thinking ‘it’s only 5 miles’ but after a couple I am longing for it all to be over.

I am going to do the inaugural Hackney half marathon on Sunday  and I plan to run regularly afterwards because running is also rather wonderful. First I am truly amazed that if I ask my body to do something then my body says ‘yes’. I sometimes can’t remember the person who had to stop after a lap round the park. Experienced runners talk about running as something we are evolved to do. My ‘happy zone’ is between mile 5 and mile 9 at the moment. Who is that person who knows that about herself?

It’s not just distance though, I had the wonderful experience of being led on a run by a fell runner. He routinely competes in 20 mile hill races. He ‘slowed down’ for me for a 9 mile training run. I did the first 5k and then 10k  the fastest I had ever managed. I did not expect to run like that and yet my body did it.

So much of our travelling in London is to get to places it’s easy to forget how to move. My running has been about covering ground. The absence of a  destination with my increasing sense of strength and ability has been truly liberating, transformative even. It’s hard to explain. I have run myself out of my self imposed limits. Whether we can run, walk,  wheel or dance, in moving we can enjoy our breath; enjoy life and live.