Ed Burke's Got a Rocket in His Pita Pocket

Sick of protein shakes and energy biscuits? Meet the exercise physiologist who has revolutionized sports nutrition with a radical new diet for athletes—real food.

May 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

THE CARB-PROTEIN COMBINATION was the final puzzle piece for Burke, who regularly crossed paths with Ivy at conferences and lectures. Now convinced that he had everything he needed to proselytize for the Next Big Thing in sports nutrition, he sat down to write a book showing athletes how to use hydration and glycogen replenishment to help solve the thorny problem of muscle recovery. Glycogen depletion wasn¹t exactly groundbreaking, but Burke, at his best when translating arcane research for the masses, realized that no one was applying the big picture to hardworking athletes. He knew from other research, for example, that exercise damages the immune system. He knew that exercise releases chemicals called free radicals, which damage muscles. He also knew that exercise produces hormones, like cortisol, that tear down muscle proteins, delaying muscle repair and contributing to muscle soreness. (This is why athletes take anabolic steroids, which counteract cortisol's effects and allow faster recovery.) Putting it together, Burke saw a bona fide syndrome: a cascade effect of fatigue, pain, and increased vulnerability to illness, all precipitated by improper recovery and all avoidable, or at least reducible, by a proper recovery diet. With Ivy's protein discovery, the science of muscle recovery now had the critical mass of research to go mainstream.

What Burke needed was a marketing conduit, which presented itself soon enough. Only a short way into work on his new book, Burke went to a trade show and met Robert Portman, president of Pacific Health, who was also looking into recovery as a way to exploit a rather huge gap in the sports-drink market. The industry, Portman told Burke, "is in a time warp." The major players, like Gatorade and its derivatives Powerade and Exceed, along with most of the gels and bars, were all based on "science that may have been quite breakthrough in the 1960s, but which hadn't advanced or taken into account much of the new research." With the right product, Portman believed, someone could take a pretty big bite out of the $2 billion sports-drink market.

A year later, PacificHealth invited Burke to a symposium held in April 1998 at Cheyenne Mountain Resort near Colorado Springs devoted to designing a new, high-tech recovery drink. Ivy was there, talking about carbs and protein. Others discussed the latest on free-radical damage, rehydration, and electrolytes. Just a month earlier, Burke had met with Barry Sears at a health-food trade show. "Sears complained that he had never trademarked the term 'Zone' or '40-30-30' and that everyone else was making money off his ideas," Burke says. "I said, 'Aha!' and filed it away." And so, hoping to avoid a Sears-like mistake after the Cheyenne symposium, Burke outlined the formula for a recovery-specific sports beverage and trademarked the name R4. He then licensed that name to PacificHealth for a flat fee, with the promise of royalties if sales ever took off.

Shortly thereafter came PacificHealth's magic potion—a recovery drink founded on the R4 principles, with added protein, a raft of antioxidants, and other ingredients, like glutamine, an amino acid, to enhance muscle-tissue repair and immune-system recovery. It slapped on a technical-sounding name, Endurox R4, and tested it against a standard sports drink. Sure enough, PacificHealth discovered the mix had all kinds of benefits, from increased endurance to decreased heart rate. As a bonus, Burke was able to include those results in Optimal Muscle Recovery, which was published just a few months later, while PacificHealth got to use testimonials from Carmichael (whom Portman had met just before Armstrong's first tour victory) and Burke in its ads. The revolution had begun.

Launched in April 1999, and followed later that summer with a marketing campaign that leaned heavily on Carmichael's role in Armstrong's first Tour de France victory, Endurox R4 caught the sleepy sports-drink market by surprise. With a label that served up some impressive boasts ("improves performance up to 55 percent and reduces postexercise muscle stress by 36 percent"), by the end of 2000 the beverage had made $2 million in sales. "It was hot," says Reese Houghton, a buyer for the mail-order giant Colorado Cyclist. Large containers continue to outpace small ones in sales, Portman says, which indicates that committed athletes are favoring the product. That's critical, because Endurox R4 doesn't have much of a marketing budget and can't afford endorsement deals with big-name athletes. Instead, Endurox R4 is nurturing success via guerrilla marketing, giving free samples to athletes and relying on them for positive word-of-mouth. And it's working, says Portman. Many athletes are using Endurox R4, even though they're endorsing other products. "We may not have the little logo on the bottle," he says. "But at this point, I just want to make sure we're in the bottle."


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