Energy Drinks: Psychological Implications


USA Swimming's Sports Medicine Task Force recently conducted research into the topic of energy drinks. For the last few weeks, the task force presented a series of articles designed to educate swimmers, coaches and parents on the findings of its research.

This week we bring you an article on the psychological implications of energys drinks on competitive swimmers. Other articles in this series include Energy Drinks: What You Need to Know Energy Drinks: A No-No for Young Swimmers and The Direct Health Effects of Stimulant/Energy Drinks.


By Lenny Weirsma, DPE

Energy drinks differ from sports drinks in many important ways. Sports drinks are flavored beverages that contain carbohydrates, minerals and electrolytes and are generally used to replace water and essential nutrients lost during prolonged exercise1. Energy drinks contain stimulants (such as caffeine, guarna and taurine), sugars or sweeteners, and other additives and are marketed to produce performance-enhancing effects such as increased endurance, concentration, reaction time, or improved mood 2. It is important to note that energy drinks are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and there are currently no restrictions for marketing to or providing warning labels for use with children or adolescents2. Common brands of energy drinks currently on the market include Monster Energy Drinks, Red Bull, Rockstar, and Full Throttle. Energy shots, such as 5 Hour Energy Shots, are 2-3 ounce servings that contain less sugar and calories than full-size energy drinks but similar doses of stimulants as full-size energy drinks 3.


In many ways, we live in a society that seeks a quick solution to our problems or a quick boost to our performance. Athletes who consume energy drinks often cite that they do so to receive a rapid and easy burst of energy that they can use to enhance their performance. But energy drink use should not be sought to replace, or even enhance, one’s daily training regime or nutrition plan. It is also important to note that there are many counter-effects of energy drink consumption, as outlined in the article entitled the "Direct Health Effects of Stimulants" that appeared on on November 28.


Alternatives to Energy Drink Use

For all of the reasons outlined above, it should be clear that USA Swimming does not endorse the use of energy drinks, and strongly discourages its athletes to consume them for either performance or personal reasons. As alternatives, USA Swimming Sports Medicine recommends that athletes, coaches and parents consider other healthier, effective choices, such as the following:

  • In a sport like swimming, there has never been, nor will there likely ever be, a “quick fix” that is more effective than good daily decisions about nutrition, sleep patterns, hard work and preparation. Living in a society that is so reliant on caffeine and other stimulants, and being around peers who consume energy drinks or other forms of caffeine on a daily basis, makes it tempting to want to rely on a stimulant drink to overcome fatigue from a lack of sleep or to get a burst of energy prior to races. But athletes rely on their bodies more than most people in society and therefore need to make better decisions about what they consume. Making good daily decisions about nutrition, sleep, and training will not only eliminate the need to rely on a quick fix, but will help reduce the risks associated with energy drink usage describe above.
  • Most athletes perform best when they are in a state of optimal energy prior to and during a race. Sport psychology researchers refer to this is the “Zone of Optimal Functioning” 4, or what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has labeled a state of “Flow” 5. Because of the excitement of most meets (big or small) and the importance swimmers place on their performance, relatively few athletes are in a lethargic state prior to competition. Most athletes are sufficiently aroused prior to races, in which pre-race “jitters” and excitement produce nervous system responses of increased heart rate, narrowed attentional focus, increased adrenaline, and increased breathing rate that prepare an athlete to physically perform. When athletes experience excessive arousal, or nervous system activity, they tend to experience performance declines. Athletes who are already nervous or excited before races who then also consume an energy drink make them susceptible to muscular tension, shallow breathing, or compromised reaction time that often leads to poor performance. Also, many swimmers take their races out too fast because of these jitters and have a difficult time coming back in the last half of the race. So, ironically, more athletes should seek techniques that have a reverse effect of energy drinks, such as deep breathing or self-talk phrases (“I am ready”) that remind a swimmer to be calm and in control.
  • Swimmers still seeking a boost prior to performing can use simple sport psychology techniques that increase feelings of energy, motivation, and excitement. Music with upbeat tempo has been found to be a great tool to improve mood, decrease distractions, and positively alter arousal level 6. An enduring image from the 2008 Olympic Trials and Olympic Games is that of Michael Phelps wearing oversized earphones from which he listened to upbeat music that helped him focus and create positive emotions of excitement. Create a playlist that mixes relaxing, lower tempo music for when you need to calm down with upbeat, exciting music that helps you drown out distractions and puts you in a state of confidence and control prior to your race.
  • Positive mental imagery, otherwise known as visualization, has also been found to have positive performance benefits7. In the days prior to a meet, in between events, and even a few minutes prior to lining up behind the blocks, swimmers can close their eyes and imagine themselves performing well at various times during a race. Imagining yourself overcoming an opponent in the last lap of a race, or swimming calmly and smoothly during the first 150 meters of an event, can create a positive and energetic mindset that can improve your performance. Combining imagery with music has been found to have even greater performance benefits 8.

In conclusion, it is important for swimmers to make good decisions about what they put into their bodies, and to understand the implications of those decisions, both positive and negative, on their performance. Besides being unhealthy, energy drinks also have the potential to increase perceptions of nervousness before a race and to have several other negative consequences on the nervous system. As noted above, swimmers can regulate their energy levels in much safer and effective ways, and are encouraged to pursue healthy avenues to reach their goals.



1American Academy of Pediatrics (2011). Clinical report—Sports drinks and energy drinks for children and adolescents: Are they appropriate? Pediatrics, 127(6), 1182-1189.
2Seifert, S. M., Schaechter, J. L., Hershorin, E. R., & Lipshultz, S. E. (2011). Health effects of energy drinks on children, adolescents, and young adults. Pediatrics, 127(3), 511-529.
3Lee, E. (2011, June 5). Energy shots review: Do they work? Are they safe? Retrieved October 12, 2011, from
4Woodman, T., Albinson, J. G., & Hardy, L. (1997). An investigation of the Zones of Optimal Functioning hypothesis within a multidimensional framework. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 19, 131-141.
5Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
6Karageorghis, C. I., Terry, P. C., Lane, A. M., Bishop, D. T., & Priest, D. L. (2011). The BASES expert statement on the use of music in exercise. Journal of Sport Sciences, 17(9), 713-724.
7McCarthy, P. J. (2009). Putting imagery to good affect: A case study among youth swimmers. Sport & Exercise Psychology Review, 5(1), 27-38.
8Pain, M. A., Harwood, C., & Anderson, R. (2011). Precompetition imagery and music: The impact on Flow and performance in competitive soccer. The Sport Psychologist, 25(2), 212-232.

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