Many of my friends and clients are preparing for the New York City, Chicago and Houston marathons this year and I keep getting asked time and time again about sports products.
Are sports bars, gels and drinks necessary for maximizing performance, minimizing recovery time and replenishing lost nutrients. Or, are they just junk food masquerading as sports nutrition?
Will you be hurting your training by not using a gel/ bar/ drink during or after a run? If you are not already using them, should you add them to your diet? Since many of these products are laden with sugar, should you avoid them and keep on drinking water and eating healthy pre- and post-workout snacks? And, further, are these products something we should give to our kids?
I wrote about this subject and, as many of you know, as an athlete and runner myself, I do not use bars, gels and drinks myself and prefer other nutrient and electrolyte-rich foods but with so many well-known athletes and trainers using them the issue is not quite so black and white! In this article, I will try to lay out the facts and also give suggestions as to which products are my favorites if you do decide to use them.
Why do athletes use these products?
The reason athletes use them is because they are a quick, convenient way to replenish glycogen stores in the liver, to replace electrolyte loss of sodium, potassium and other key nutrients and, in the case of sports drinks, to re-hydrate.
Our bodies run on a steady supply of fuel during the day, and when we exercise (especially at a high- intensity level during training), we slowly deplete these glycogen stores and may develop low blood sugar, which ultimately may result in hypoglycemia. Glycogen can be depleted in one workout session or gradually over several days or weeks so it is especially important to be vigilant about refueling! This is, by the way, why runners carb load and eat more carbohydrates in the days leading up to a big race.
Multiple carbohydrate combination’s are thought to enhance absorption. When glycogen is depleted, fatigue sets in and we “hit the wall.” We may feel shaky and lightheaded and not able to go a step further. Not what we want when we are training or competing!
Equally important is making sure that we are well-hydrated and replenish all of the fluids that we have lost during intense exercise. We can easily lose between 16-32 oz, and sometimes even 48 oz (1.5L), through sweat loss while we are training. Water is our body’s primary way to cool off as our body’s temperature rises. When we sweat, our body’s blood volume goes down and stress is placed on our cardiovascular system and we may suffer loss of mental concentration and become exhausted.
Hyponatremia (low blood sodium levels), where the electrolyte sodium becomes unbalanced by either too much water loss or too much sodium loss through excess sweating, has caused a few fatalities and is worth being addressed. Sports drinks do help balance sodium levels and help prevent hyponatremia. Sometimes it is hard to tell exactly how much we need but a good test is to look at your urine and make sure it is a light yellow color. If it is dark orange, then you need to drink more. And, if it is completely clear, then lay off for a while!
So, what is the skinny on ‘Sports Drinks?’
If you think they are and you plan to use them, it is essential to search out brands that do not include high-fructose corn syrup and are packed with energy boosting, nutrient-packed ingredients. Otherwise, you might as well be having a soft drink or candy bar with your vitamin! Or, since some are also packed with caffeine, you might as well be having a candy bar, a vitamin and a cup of coffee!
If you look at the ingredients list of a product and high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, glucose or fructose is the first and second ingredient on the list, then put it down. Ingredients to look for in sports nutrition products are the electrolytes Sodium Chloride and Potassium Chloride, the amino acids L-Leucine, L-Alanine, L-Valine or L-Histidine, and L-Isoleucine and B-Vitamins.
Sports drinks not only replenish fluids but also provide beneficial electrolytes such as potassium and sodium and, in many cases, B12 and other vitamins. Ideally sports drinks should contain between 6-8% carbohydrates for optimal absorption. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that Gatorade (or Gatorade Endurance) is a healthy option even though many races supply it and are sponsored by it. Gatorade’s top two ingredients are sucrose and, get this, high-fructose corn syrup! Gatorade Endurance, the official drink of the ING New York City Marathon, has 200 mg of sodium per 8 oz. serving and is designed for long distance runs. Fueling up with high-fructose corn syrup, however, does not seem like the healthiest option to me!
Vitamin Water is marginally better because it is sweetened with cane sugar and fructose and contains important electrolytes as well as B-vitamins. It is probably not a good choice for an endurance athlete or someone running a marathon because it does not contain sodium chloride or potassium chloride but for the average runner it is fine. If you are a real endurance athlete, you can probably get away with having all of the extra sugar and calories but, for most of us, my opinion is to make choices sweetened with natural ingredients.
Vitamin Water Zero is my new favorite to give to the kids because it is sugar free and is sweetened with the natural sweetener stevia. For those trying to keep their sugar intake down, this is an ideal choice!
Liv is my absolute favorite sports drink! Liv is sweetened with agave nectar and brown rice syrup and contains the necessary electrolytes sodium and potassium. Liv comes in the flavors Berry, Citrus, Orange and Lemon and is delicious. It is a bit harder to find than Vitamin Waters but when I can this is the drink that I drink myself and give to my kids.
Function’s Alternative Energy is sweetened with cane juice and contains electrolytes and another good choice but be aware that it does contain caffeine from green tea.
Sports Drinks with Caffeine or Without?
There is a debate about the benefits of taking in caffeine due to the diuretic quality of caffeine. It does not seem to have much of an effect in small dosages and as always athletes need to make sure they are adequately hydrated.
Some scientific evidence indicates that caffeine can improve performance by increasing mental alertness and concentration, decreasing the perception of fatigue, and by forcing the body to use fatty acids instead of glycagon stores for fuel thus delaying muscle fatigue. Because so many athletes used it to enhance performance, it was even banned in high doses by the International Olympic Committee until 2004!
How about ‘Energy Bars & Gels?
Energy bars seem to be the product that not only athletes use but also weekend warriors and people at their desks all day looking for a boost tend to use. With respect to the bars, my same rules apply. Avoid bars with a high sugar content and look for ones packed with nutrients and fresh fruits and grains.
Not to bash Power Bars (or the Power Bar Performance Bar, Pria) but the top two ingredients are cane juice syrup and fructose. Power Bar has come out with a Power Bar Endurance Bar that has all the important electrolytes (200 mg of sodium and 110 mg of potassium) and amino acids. And, Power Bar has also come out with a Power Bar Protein Plus with some key nutrients and electrolytes as well as added protein but glucose syrup and cane juice syrup are still the second and third ingredients.
Cliff Bars are a good choice for fueling during a workout or re-powering after an intense workout. Not only are they delicious but they also contain healthy ingredients such as rolled oats, flaxseeds, dates, molasses and sea salt as well as 140 mg of sodium and 250 mg of potassium. The first ingredient, however, is brown rice syrup (a better quality sugar but sugar nonetheless.) Skip the Cliff Bar High-Protein Builder’s Bar that has sugar as its second, third and fourth ingredients!
My all time favorites are the Raw Revolution bars, which are sweetened with agave nectar and contain cashews, dates, and flax seeds. My favorite flavors are the ‘Chocolate’ and the ‘Coconut.’ Lara Bars are also a favorite in my household and are packed with all-natural ingredients such as dates, nuts, seeds and sometimes coconut. My husband’s favorite is ‘Pecan Pie’ and mine is ‘Coconut’ but they also have a mean ‘PB&J’!
have gained quite a following among athletes because they are portable and easy to open, contain mostly carbohydrates, are more readily absorbed and provide quicker energy boosts than the bars. Gels taste like cake frosting. The ever-popular Gu Gels top two ingredients are glucose and fructose and contain caffeine for an added punch.
While they do have beneficial vitamins and electrolytes, that is a lot of sugar! If you like gels, Hammer Gel is a much better choice! Hammer gels are made with all-natural ingredients and are sweetened with fruit juice. A well-known Olympic trainer in Colorado Springs swears by them! Another gel brand that was recently brought to my attention by a fellow runner is Honey Stinger, which is sweetened with honey and contains all of the necessary nutrients plus all the B-vitamins important for energy.
Hydrating oneself and replenishing one’s electrolytes, vitamins and glycogen stores before and after training and competing is important. It is more important, though, to recognize that there are many other ways to do it! You can replenish your stores just as well drinking water, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, adding natural sea salt to your foods, eating a whole grain bagel, having a cup of yogurt and choosing foods and drinks with all-natural ingredients.
What do I do to replenish after a workout?
One of my favorite post-workout snacks is my Green Smoothie, which I always add chia or hemp seeds to as well as maca. This smoothie has tons of protein and also because it contains banana, celery and cucumber, has the necessary electrolytes potassium ad sodium!
Another recommendation if you want something a bit easier or more portable is the Vega smoothie powders! The athlete Brendan Brazier has created a whole line of sports smoothies that are packed with nutrition and electrolytes as well as protein and are perfect for a post workout snack.
I also love to drink Coconut Water and feel like it is the most natural way to replace lost electrolytes after a workout.
Another favorite post-workout snack is my Chia Seed Pudding, which is bursting with electrolytes, protein and Omega 3’s!
During a long run such as a marathon or a triathlon, it may be essential to replenish glycogen stores or electrolytes right then and there to get through a tough place in your training but planning out your nutrition and making smart choices while you are training ultimately will lead to a better race time in the end.
Whatever you choose and whatever you do, however, just read the labels, be realistic about your individual needs and make an educated choice.