Looking to venture into the world of real food fueling? Start here.
by Pip Taylor
Sports nutrition has evolved over the last few decades from bananas taped on top tubes to a massive industry. Not long ago these types of new foods were barely in existence; now they seem almost mandatory, and especially for those focused on endurance activities.
From energy and electrolyte drinks to gels, bars, chews, recovery shakes and salt tablets, there is truly a product for everyone and every activity. If you can’t find your ideal combination, there are custom options where you can dial in exactly what you want. This wide range of options has indeed helped many athletes achieve success.
But there are other options. Real, whole foods that were, once upon a time, the only options.
There are many athletes who advocate the use of whole real foods in their training and racing, either in place of or in combination with some sports-specific products. Some athletes believe that their risk of gastrointestinal distress is diminished when they eat real food, while others find that they don’t tire as quickly with such foods over many hours of training and racing (a key element in staying adequately fueled). Others aren’t a fan of the preservatives, chemicals and concentrated sugars in sports foods and find that they are better able to control their intake when they use familiar, everyday foods. Others are turning to real food for its comparatively lower cost.
There is, of course, a time and place for both. Real food is generally a more nutritious option, contributing not just to energy needs, but also an athlete’s elevated nutrient requirements. The more sports-specific (i.e: concentrated and refined) products can be saved for competition, or when a particularly grueling workout demands them.
Below are some simple swaps to try in training and possibly even racing. Test carefully—everyone tolerates different foods and racing throws extra unknowns into the mix, both in terms of tolerance and the practicality of having to carry food through an event.
1. Salt tabs: There is little evidence that athletes require extra sodium during events, despite higher sweat rates. Despite this, anecdotal evidence points to the fact that athletes are not only using salt supplements, but have found they are critical for performance, especially in the heat.
- Pros: Easily swallowed with no salty taste.
- Cons: Too easy to overdo as you don’t register the level of salt consumed through taste receptors. Too much salt can be dangerous and will definitely hamper performance.
Try instead: Any salty foods such as potato chips, pretzels, homemade salted bars, or salted broth. (And for Aussie readers, try Vegemite!)
- Pros: Tasting the salt in your food and drink provides internal feedback to your body’s regulating systems, helping to make sure you don’t overdo your salt intake. Pills and tablets, while convenient, mean you could easily ingest too much leading to gut issues. Real food with added salt will also help break the sweet monotony of regular sports foods, which are usually highly sugared. This can help keep you interested in food (and thus getting the calories you need) throughout the race.
- Cons: These foods can be harder to carry, especially during competition. They’re more vulnerable to sweat and weather, and many are susceptible to getting crushed in storage or travel.
2. Recovery shakes: These ubiquitous drinks offer carbohydrates and protein, perfect for that post-workout refueling window.
- Pros: Convenient and portable.
- Cons: Can be costly. Many contain additives and preservatives, and it’s harder to control what goes into your drink.
Try instead: Make your own by blending whey or other protein powder, plain yogurt (for probiotics and more protein), fruit (for flavor, fiber, antioxidants and vitamins) and nuts (fiber, vitamins and minerals, healthy fats).
- Pros: Nutrition. Anytime you are eating real food you are accessing nutrients both known and unknown in a more natural state.
- Cons: Convenience. Ingredients need refrigeration and athletes need access to a blender and a few minutes to prepare.
3. Chews and gels: These packaged snacks resembling either gummy candies or a tube of, quite literally, gel, come in a wide variety of flavors. Many are caffeinated.
- Pros: Convenience, portable, long shelf life, consistent and usually available at event aid stations.
- Cons: Can be costly per serving. Many contain additives and preservatives.
Try instead: Raisins, dates, other dried fruits.
- Pros: Dried fruits are packed with energy so you won’t miss out on carbs. Plus, they contribute to other nutritional requirements, adding vitamins, minerals and fiber—something most packaged options skip over. They are also relatively portable and can be easily packaged for food on the go: just grab a small plastic bag or foil.
- Cons: The extra fiber can be problematic for some athletes especially during intense exercise and result in more frequent bathroom stops.
4. Bars: This category of sports nutrition has expanded exponentially in the past few years. You can now find bars to suit almost any flavor, ingredient, or dietary preference.
- Pros: Convenient, available in a range of flavors; textures, compositions and are consistent. Portable and long shelf life mean they can be kept in sports bags as emergency pre- or post-workout snacks.
- Cons: Cost and added ingredients.
Try instead: Rice cakes and honey, bananas, peanut butter and jam, homemade savory burritos, bars, squares and cookies (as popularized by Alan Lim in his book Feed Zone Portables).
- Pros: Cost, taste, better nutritional profile.
- Cons: Decreased convenience and portability.
5. Antioxidant supplements: Athletes do have elevated requirements for vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Clever marketing has convinced us that the best way to meet these requirements is through a supplement. There is no evidence that antioxidant supplements are of benefit and indeed more recent research shows that supplementation can, in fact, blunt training gains and possibly even be detrimental to health.
- Pros: Useful when you have been tested for certain deficiencies, or if recommended by a doctor.
- Cons: More is not better when it comes to concentrated supplements, and there is no magic bullet. Cost is another major drawback.
Try instead: Increasing your intake of real fruit and vegetables.
- Pros: Everything! Taste, nutrition, cost, variety, the list goes on.
- Cons: None.
Pip Taylor is a professional triathlete and nutritionist. Visit her website at piptaylor.com