Like anyone with kids, long work weeks due to an eviscerated retirement plan, and an active lifestyle, I could really use some extra get-up-and-go – something that doesn't just keep me awake (like the half-gallon of coffee I drink daily) but allows me to dig a little deeper. Especially when I want to go hard on skis or the bike with friends who train more than I do. So when I saw Lance Armstrong pitching a new "healthy energy" product called FRS, I ordered a few cases ($36 for 15 cans) of the beverage. I figured if the world's strongest cardiovascular engine could use some legal cheating, maybe I could too.
The acronym stands for Free Radical Scavenger – a reminder that the product was originally developed in 2004 as an antioxidant (a substance that protects against cell damage), not an energy drink. It was only later that FRS became a cult product among elite cyclists for the perceived energy boost it gives. According to the company, Lance signed on as an FRS spokesman after calling to score some sample product.
On my first trial, I was worn out from a bout with the seasonal flu and had a ski trip coming up in a week. I figured the daily dose of vitamin C and antioxidants couldn't hurt. With nobody to guide me on how much to take, I drank a big glass every morning for eight days. It tasted like chalky, synthetic orange juice. For six hours after each glass, I was sharp and productive at my desk. A week later I skied pretty well considering I'd been knocked on my ass for two-plus weeks. FRS, in my opinion, helped mitigate the energy-depleting flu – but I needed to do some more research to find out if my results were too good to be true, and to make sure these sustained jolts of energy were being driven by a healthy supplement.
Historically there's been no magic energy pill. I've always been a coffee man, but it turns out that caffeine doesn't really energize you. What it does do is stimulate the central nervous system by preventing the nucleoside adenosine from bonding with its receptor in the brain. (Think of adenosine as a messenger that tells you it's time to rest.) With that message diverted you'll stay alert, but there's no actual energy boost.
A buddy of mine once swallowed speed before a high school lacrosse game for an energy jolt. He seemed energized but completely erratic on the field. More recently, a colleague of mine experimented with a slew of purported energy-boosting powders, shots, and tinctures in the name of journalism, but other than a ginseng habit, all she came away with from the experience was a profound respect for the placebo effect.
Then there's the multibillion-dollar energy drink industry. But the only "energy" in Red Bull, Rockstar, Monster, and the like comes courtesy of caffeine (about 80 milligrams, the equivalent of an eight-ounce cup of brewed coffee) and the 50-50 blend of sucrose and glucose. These two simple sugars are worse than caffeine at giving you a lift. They pass rapidly through the stomach wall and deliver ugly side effects, like yo-yoing energy levels and belly fat. Study after study has linked the ingestion of sucrose and glucose to diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
So when I first tried FRS this past February, I assumed its energy claims were bogus as well. It's a vitamin-and-flavonoid (a plant-borne antioxidant) cocktail, and neither vitamins nor flavonoids contain calories – the only real form of energy the body knows. But although FRS spikes its drink with 48 milligrams of caffeine to boost metabolism, it's decidedly not a high-glucose death bomb. The low-calorie formula has very little sugar. Instead, the energy claims of FRS are built around quercetin, a flavonoid found in the skin of blueberries and apples, among other fruits. Most of us know flavonoids as cancer fighters that eradicate free radicals in the body, but FRS claims quercetin offers sustained energy as well. There are other quercetin products out there, but none that contain the levels that FRS has. A single 500-milligram dose delivers the quercetin of 60 apples via a fairly new concentrate called QU99.5, a nearly pure form of quercetin extracted from South American bushes.
Exactly how quercetin delivers energy is still undetermined, but according to Mark Davis, a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health and a leading quercetin researcher, megadoses of quercetin most likely deliver three energy hits – none of which involve calories. (Davis, it should be noted, wasn't working for FRS when he did his recent quercetin study, which was funded in part by a Magellan Scholar Grant from the University of South Carolina, but he's now an adviser for the company. You should also know that Quercegen Pharma LLC, a partner of Merck, is the primary producer of QU99.5, which was used in Davis's study – they provided it – and is used in FRS.)
Davis's most promising research has shown that quercetin increases mitochondrial density in laboratory mice. "Mighty chondria," as you may recall from freshman biology, are the power producers of the cells. As such, they convert glycogen – stored cellular energy – into actual energy. We're all born with mitochondria (we inherit them from our mothers), but it's what you do with them that matters. Although every two-bit trainer and coach knows that to improve performance you must build greater densities of bigger and better mitochondria, there isn't much in the exercise physiology literature about the little buggers. "It is generally assumed that a greater density of mitochondria is associated with improved endurance performance," says Joe Friel, author of 'The Cyclist's Training Bible' and one of the most respected endurance coaches in the business. "But there is little research on human subjects that confirms that. One thing research has shown is that high-intensity training produces a greater quality of mitochondria." Since high doses of quercetin appear to mimic that dynamic, supplementing with FRS could be a shortcut to fitness and more-efficient energy production.
The second possible boost from quercetin, according to Davis, has to do with adenosine, that same messenger that gets suppressed by caffeine. Quercetin likely suppresses adenosine in much the same way but, says Davis, levels don't rise and fall as rapidly. And, finally, Davis believes quercetin might also prove to be an anti-inflammatory and thereby might reduce a person's sensation of fatigue.
Months after my initial test, i asked FRS for more samples for a lengthier self-administered trial. They sent me the FRS chews, a few cans, a powder, and a few big jugs of the concentrate that cost $20 and make the most sense for heavy usage. I took the recommended dose – 650 milligrams of quercetin per day.
The results from my first test were repeated – and then some. This time around, deadlines and family life conspired to keep me off my bike early in the season. But I felt remarkably energized when I did get out. I don't know if I was faster, but I felt surprisingly good given my lack of conditioning. Normally I get dropped a few hours into early-season bike rides when I'm still 10 pounds heavy from the winter, but on FRS I was able to hang comfortably with the pack. My endurance was better than it should have been.
My experiences are more than confirmed by a recent study Davis performed with 12 human subjects. After seven days of treatment with 1,000 milligrams of quercetin a day, endurance on a bike increased by 13.2 percent and VO2 – an individual's capacity to store and use oxygen – increased by 3.9 percent compared with the same group on a placebo. Those are staggering numbers, and I'm certain I didn't experience anything like them.
"That's an amazing increase in such a short period of time," says Friel. "No athlete could ever hope to see that sort of fitness change from training only. That makes it more effective than any doping substance I've ever read about. So I'm skeptical."
"Even a gain of one tenth of 1 percent can be very significant," says Dr. Don Catlin, president of the group Anti-Doping Research. But Catlin also makes it clear that even though quercetin is a naturally occurring product, like testosterone, it too could be considered an illegal performance enhancer if discovered in unnaturally high levels. "If the spectacular results are confirmed," says Catlin, "WADA [World Anti-Doping Association] will find a way to ban the substance."
All of which leaves me in a gray area with regard to my new FRS habit. I'm a staunch anti-doping advocate. But can a supplement to a healthy diet really be cheating? Gaining an advantage is part of sport, which is why I still chug espressos on rides – maybe it does make me faster. So why not FRS?
For now I'll keep using FRS for weeks at a time throughout the year – especially when I can't exercise regularly or if I'm beaten down by the flu. Or if I feel I'm getting old, like Lance.