Turns out it’s not just to avoid getting a dry mouth.
We’ve all seen it by now: Harry Kane leaves the pitch after 105 minutes, sweat dripping from his massive chin, gasping for whatever fluids are nearby to carry him through the last 15 minutes of extra time. He gets his request, being tossed a Powerade-branded bottle, and the dramatic picture of him forcefully spraying drink into his mouth is enough to make any Coca-Cola exec rub their hands in delight. Then he goes and gobs the entire mouthful over the nearest patch of bare earth.
It’s something that’s baffled casual football fans for basically the entirety of the World Cup (and long before that), but there’s a more rational explanation for it than meets the eye. It all bases around something known as ‘Carb-Rinsing’.
The basic principle behind carb-rinsing is that filling your mouth with a carb-filled liquid, in this instance a sugar and salt-heavy sports drink, activates pleasure and sense receptors in your brain that make it think extra energy in the form of food is on the way. This, in theory, stops your brain from thinking the body is fatigued and essentially allows you to use a little extra energy that you’d otherwise have to gain back by swallowing liquids (which can in turn lead to bloating, cramps).
‘You’re sort of tricking the brain a little bit; that’s what we think the mechanism is,’ Asker Jeukendrup, an exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist, told The New York Times. In a study he conducted with the University of Birmingham in 2004, he found that that carb-rinsing made cyclists about a minute faster in 40-kilometer (nearly 25-mile) cycling time trials. Michigan State University is also trialling the method in a study, which so far has found that it provides a performance boost for about 15 minutes. One company in New York has gone so far as to develop a special glucose-based Carb-Rinsing drink.
Some research has suggested that carb-rinsing is only really effective in exercise periods between 30 minutes and an hour, but the England team in particular, for all the little it seemed to help them in the latter stages of their Semi-Final defeat against Croatia, are known to have employed the method throughout the tournament. The benefits provided are largely to do with cardiovascular and muscular endurance, allowing players to run at a slightly higher-level of intensity. It’s unlikely to help them bury any last-minute penalties though.
For Sunday League footballers, this sadly means that however much you think doing a dramatic slosh-and-spit with water on the sidelines at half-time will make you look like Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s actually doing sweet F-all for your hydration. Swallow that H20 and swill around a little Gatorade though, and you might get a bit of a brain boost.
‘You’re going to do every trick in the book to try to maximize cognitive focus after two hours of a pretty intense match,’ said Trent Stellingwerff, the director of performance solutions at the Pacific division of the Canadian Sport Institute. ‘Is there science behind it in a soccer model? Not that I’m aware of yet. Is it going to hurt? Absolutely not. If the athletes believe in it and it’s part of their mojo, will that work? You betcha it will.’
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