Get the most out of your nutrition with this primer on commercial vs. real foods

“I thought I was supposed to use gels during long runs. Can candy work just as well ..? ”

“Are electrolyte tablets the best way to replace sodium loses from sweaty workouts?”

“I get diarrhea when I use some commercial sports foods… help!”

If you are among the many runners and triathletes who have no idea which commercial sports foods are best to support your workouts, welcome to the club! Advertisements have led many active people — from serious competitors to anyone who breaks a sweat — to believe that pre-workout drinks, energy gels and electrolyte replacers (among the many other commercial sports foods) are a necessary part of a sports diet. Guess what? Real foods can often work just as well.

While there is a time and a place for commercial sports foods, many runners and triathletes needlessly spend lots of money on them. The purpose of this article is to help you become an informed consumer, so you know what these products are (convenient, expensive) —and what they are not (essential for all exercisers). Whatever you do, test them during training, so you can learn if they settle well in your gut. You don’t want surprises during long runs or races!

Related: Sports Nutrition – Fads, Facts and Fallacies

Pre-Workout Supplements

When you feel low on energy and are dreading your afternoon training session, pre-workout products that promise explosive energy, sharp focusand incredible results can be very tempting to buy. While simply eating a heartier breakfast, lunch and pre-exercise snack can help prevent an afternoon droop, many runners and triathletes fail to appreciate the power of food. Instead, they look for “magic.”

  • The “magic” ingredient in most pre-workout products is caffeine. You could just as easily get stimulated with coffee or NoDoz. True energy comes with eating a pre-exercise banana, granola bar or carb-based snack.
  • The best pre-workout snacks digest easily and don’t talk back to you. Standard supermarket foods (eg, toast, oatmeal, animal crackers, dried pineapple, dates, banana, even a swig of maple syrup) are more likely familiar to your gut (ie, less likely to cause intestinal upset) than unfamiliar commercial sport fuels.
  • Some pre-workout products tout they are sugar free, as if sugar is evil for runners. Sugar (carbohydrate) is a true energizer in comparison to caffeine, which is just a stimulant. Carbs + caffeine will offer a better workout (for runners who tolerate caffeine, that is)!
  • Some pre-workout products contain creatine, vitamins, beta-alanine and / or other stuff that looks good on the label. The dose may be inadequate to make a significant difference in your performance. Do your homework to learn what is an effective dose.
  • Buyer beware, pre-workout products are poorly regulated. Who knows what the products contain. Claims that sound too good to be true should raise an eyebrow. Be sure your choice says NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Sport on the label.

Gels

During long runs lasting 1 to 2.5 hours, you’ll perform better if you consume about 30 to 60 grams (120-240 calories) of carbohydrate per hour. Take your choice of gel, sport drink or gummi bears!

  • During extended exercise lasting more than 2.5 hours (ultra-marathon, long bike ride), you want to target 60 to 90 g carb / h (240-360 calories), depending on the intensity of your exercise, your body size and intestinal tolerance .
  • Most gels offer 100 calories (25 g carb) in the form of some type of sugar, such as maltodextrin, sucrose, fructose or glucose. The Nutrition Facts on the gel’s label can help you determine the right amount to consume.
  • Many runners love the convenience of gels because they come in a good portion and are easy to carry. Others dislike them due to their consistency. For some runners, gels digest poorly because they contain a type of sugar that can trigger bloat, diarrhea and undesired pit stops. Always experiment with new gels during training !!!
  • Some popular alternatives to the 100 calories of carb (sugar) in a gel include gummy bears, Twizzlers, Swedish fish, gum drops, peppermint patties, maple sugar candy, even chocolate (though it melts in hot weather). The trick with choosing “real food” is to figure out how to carry it. Pockets help.

Related: Defining “normal eating” during the pandemic

Electrolyte tablets

Electrolytes (electrically charged particles, most often known as sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium), are minerals abundant in food.

  • For sweaty runners, sodium (a part of salt) is the main electrolyte of concern. Salty foods enhance fluid retention and help keep you better hydrated than plain water, which goes in one end and out the other.
  • Many electrolyte replacers are lower in sodium than you may think. By reading food labels, you’ll discover a slice of bread can have more sodium than 8-ounces of Gatorade.
  • Athletes who sweat heavily might lose about 1,000 to 2,000 mg of sodium in an hour of vigorous exercise. Some options for replacing these sodium losses include:
Commercial Sports Food Sodium (mg) Salty food Sodium (mg)
Propel Electrolyte water, 8 oz

105 String cheese, 1 stick 220
Gatorade, 8 oz

110 Beef Jerky, 1 oz 600
Gu Salted Caramel, 1 gel

125 Salt sprinkled on food, ¼ tsp 600
Nuun, 8 oz

175 Broth, from 1 cube Herb-ox 1,100
  • Replacing sodium is most important for runners who sweat heavily for extended periods in the heat. Yet, these runners can consume foods that contain sodium before, during and after exercise. For example, marathoners who refuel from a long run with half a Domino’s cheese pizza (> 2,000 mg sodium need not drink Gatorade for the beverage.
  • Consuming 500 mg. sodium before you embark on a sweaty run helps retain fluid, delay dehydration, and enhance endurance. Sprinkle salt on that pre-exercise omelet, pasta, or sweet potato before you run in the heat!

The bottom line

While commercial sports foods have their time and place for intense exercisers, not every runner needs to pay the price for pre-wrapped convenience.

Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD counsel both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook is a popular resource, as is her online workshop. Visit NancyClarkRD.com for info.

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