The recent scandal of boxer Floyd Mayweather in his fight against Manny Pacquiao, brought out of hiding the increasingly common use of intravenous infusions as a performance enhancer within the athletic community.
Traditionally, the infusions were seen within medical tents of marathons and triathlons. These infusions generally consisted of normal saline, some had glucose to replenish lost supplies, and some vitamins and minerals. They were used mainly as recovery tools instead of performance enhancing tools. These days, it has become increasingly trendy for top level athletes who compete in multi-day events to use these drips to speed recovery in preparation for the next day’s events.
Which brings us to the question of…..does it really work?
Factors supporting its use
It obviously works as otherwise it wouldn’t be used in those medical tents as a recovery aid.
The nutrients go directly into your blood stream; bypassing a potentially sluggish digestive system and hence a level of malabsorption.
Nutrients do not have to depend on the human body’s natural inefficiency.
The drip can be tailored to not only address vitamin and mineral deficiencies, but also to include amino acids where there’s a need.
It hastens cell recovery, regeneration, ATP regeneration (which is why it works so well in chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia), new cell formation amongst other things.
It helps with mental clarity and focus.
It can help in nutrient deficiencies where none are suspected. These nutrients are all water soluble meaning that it gets disposed off if there’s excess. So in periods of need, one has to replenish it with food or supplements. Unlike fat soluble nutrients that can be released from fatty storage on demand. Periods of need tends to be during times when the body is under constant stress, like training for a big sporting event, and so its easy to see how even those who eat very well can potentially have a deficit.
Factors against its use
It can seem like an unfair advantage, despite the fact that there are no ‘drugs’ being delivered.
A recent study done actually showed that the very low tech ‘drinking water’ produced better results in a selection of athletes who were split into 3 groups. The athletes were put through mild exercise in the heat for 2-4 hours and dehydrated by 4% of body mass. During recovery, the first group was given no water, 2nd group- an IV drip, 3rd group- drinking water. They were then made to repeat the exercises again. (1)
The first group, unsurprisingly, reported it as being the hardest to continue the exercises. Surprisingly, group 2 with the drip, actually found it harder to exercise compared to group 3. The hypothesis here may be that the sensation of drinking a cool drink sends important signals to the brain about thirst. This seems to suggest that both the action of drinking as well as internal rehydration seem to have a potentially equally important role.
There’s the hypothetical risk of over-hydration although I suspect its fairly small unless the practitioner really does not understand IVs.
There could be a placebo effect which could very well be due to the fact that being forced to sit still for an hour while the drip is taking place, is helping recovery.
Bottomline is that for multiday events, it does help hasten recovery for the next day’s event. For the rest, they can choose to use it post or pre-event to boost the levels of nutrients and aid cell healing and regeneration or simply wait and rest until things feel like its back to normal again.
Riebe D., Maresh C.M., Armstrong L.E. et al. (1997). Effects of oral and intravenous rehydration on ratings of perceived exertion and thirst. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 29, 117-124.