Performance Foods for Runners
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Performance Foods for Runners

by Nancy Ling, RD

By now, you have probably chewed a few energy bars, downed a few sports drinks and swallowed a few gels. You probably have your own ideas on whether these products can help you run faster and/or longer. But what's the truth behind the hype? Can they really help runners run, or are you better off with water?

Not so long ago, runners were discouraged from eating or drinking before, during, or after working out. However, more and more research has emerged that supports the notion that food and fluids actually help improve endurance and strength in athletes.

In the 1960s, scientists at the University of Florida developed a drink for their football team, the Florida Gators. Drinking the diluted sugar-and-electrolyte drink during football games enabled the team to outplay their opponents during the final half, when the other team was often pooped out from dehydration and carbohydrate depletion. Repeated victories by the Florida Gators convinced the athletic and scientific communities of the importance of fluids and carbohydrates in minimizing fatigue and improving endurance. Gatorade became a household name and the sports drink industry was born.

It wasn't until the 1980s that the world witnessed the birth of the energy bar. A marathoner named Brian Maxwell found that he needed high-carbohydrate, compact food he could carry with him on long training runs, and PowerBar was created. Since then, energy bars have been created in all shapes and sizes, nutrient compositions, textures and tastes. Bars are a solid form of nutrition that requires the user to drink water for digestion and absorption.

Gels were next on the performance super-food front. They were developed in response to runners and other endurance athletes who complained that bars were convenient, but too difficult to digest and absorb during a workout. Runners wanted something that didn't jostle around in their stomachs, but they didn't want to carry around a big bottle of sports drink, either. In serving packets weighing about an ounce, gels solved both problems they're both easy to carry and absorb. Just like bars, however, they need to be consumed with water.

Now, how do you decide which one to use, or to use them at all? They all have their advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is their convenience. Manufacturers have made tidy packages of what athletes need most: fluid and carbohydrate. Of course, sports drinks are the only ones with both fluid and carbohydrate; with energy bars and gels, you must bring along water to drink.

Can you get carbohydrates and fluids without using these performance foods? Definitely. Few runners deny the delicious and energizing combination of a banana and a glass of cold water. Even bagels, with their complex carbohydrates and a bit of salt, with some diluted juice, taste great in the middle of a long run. And what about good old-fashioned graham crackers, fig newtons and chocolate chip cookies? Why wouldn't these foods work just as well as any energy bar?

The truth is, they work fine. In fact, runners were doing marathons and cyclists were doing century rides long before the advent of sports drinks, energy bars and gels. Athletes often improvised with foods that worked for them: defizzed colas diluted with water or cold herb tea with honey in water bottles; cookies, crackers and gummy bears in pockets; and maple syrup and honey in squeezable plastic containers.

Essentially, performance foods are convenience foods. They come in portion-controlled individual packages designed for ingesting on the run. No mixing, brewing, assembling or bagging required.

One major disadvantage is the price. Sports drinks cost more than water, energy bars cost more than fig newtons, and gels cost more than honey. Runners usually balance this factor out by using performance foods when they find they will benefit them.

Sports Drinks

The best time to use sports drinks is when your run will last longer than 60 minutes. A short run requires that you drink water to replace your body's fluid losses. In a 60-minute run, you don't lose much sodium or potassium, and your glycogen stores (carbohydrate fuel in the muscles) will not be seriously depleted, so you don't need a sports drink. For longer runs, however, drinking a sports drink which contains carbohydrate, sodium and potassium has been shown to increase endurance and reduce fatigue.

Choose one that contains approximately 50 to 60 calories per 8 oz serving. This will ensure that the drink is a dilute one. Dilute sports drinks, which are approximately 6-8% carbohydrate, maximize absorption. More concentrated drinks are harder to absorb when your body is in motion. For example, juice, soda and sweetened ice teas are too concentrated for use during a run. They contain about 110 calories per 8 oz. If you want to use these concentrated drinks instead of a sports drink, dilute them with one part water. Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade are designed to be used during exercise. You can fill your water bottle with these drinks and drink at least 4 oz. every 15 minutes, or every mile. You can alternate drinking water and sports drinks so that you keep adequately hydrated. In this case, run for 15 minutes, drink 4-6 oz. sports drink, run 15 minutes, drink 4-6 oz of water, run 15 minutes, drink 4-6 oz. sports drink, and repeat. Remember to drink more if the weather is particularly hot and/or humid. Even slight dehydration can lead to reduced performance.

Can you drink sports drinks before and after exercise? Even though their main function is hydration during exercise, you can use them before and after exercise for fluid and carbohydrates. However, here is where you might weigh the costs and benefits of using a sports drink and decide that sports drinks are not really necessary when you can drink juice, sweetened ice teas or water and eat fruits, yogurt, bagels and other easily-digested solids. The important thing to remember is to drink something hydrating before and after exercise. That means water, juice, and shakes--coffee and strong tea don't count.

Energy Bars

Energy bars are useful for long endurance runs over 90 minutes. For runs shorter than that, you likely won't need to eat solid food for optimal results. Choose an energy bar that is high in carbohydrates, low in protein and low in fat, such as Clif Bar. It doesn't need to be chock full of vitamins and minerals or other additives you can't pronounce. Remember that bars with a lot of fat and protein are more difficult to digest and absorb during exercise. Choose a high-carbohydrate energy bar that tastes good to you and has an agreeable texture. Then take one or two with you on some long runs to test it out. Take one bite every 10 to 15 minutes and follow it with at least 4 oz of water. Use water - not sports drinks - with energy bars, because the energy bar will supply you with the carbohydrate you need. If you use the energy bar with a sports drink, you will be overloaded with carbohydrate, and absorption will be slowed.

The carbohydrate you eat before a workout helps increase endurance, while carbohydrate eaten after a workout helps replete glycogen stores in the muscle, enhancing your next workout. If you are eating the energy bar right before exercise, choose one that is light in texture, high in carbohydrate, low in protein and low in fat. If you are eating an energy bar an hour or more before a workout, or after a workout, look for one that has a little more protein and fat - for example, one of the "40-30-30" ratio-type bars, such as Balance Bar or PR Bar, which have less carbohydrate and moderate amounts of protein and fat.

Energy Gels

Energy gels, such as Gu and PowerGel, are beneficial because they are a concentrated source of easily-absorbed carbohydrate. Energy gels help you maintain your blood sugar level and provide you with fuel during a run. Take one to two packets with you for every hour that you plan to be running. If you have had a snack, energy bar or breakfast before you go, you will not need to take your first packet of gel until about 1 hour into your run. Take the entire packet of gel along with 8 oz of water. As with energy bars, don't use a sports drink, because absorption will be slowed. Repeat with another packet of gel 30 to 45 minutes later, or when you feel fatigued during the run.

Energy gels are not designed to meet your needs before or after a run, but some runners take them before working out. If you are doing a high intensity run such as a track workout or any kind of speedwork, gel may be a good choice, because it is quickly absorbed. But if you are planning on a long run, a meal containing ample complex carbohydrates and protein, such as a peanut butter sandwich and milk, or yogurt, bagel and fruit, will last longer and provide more energy over the long run.

In Summary

While these performance foods are not necessary, they can be an asset for any runner. The best one for you is one you have tried and tested and found useful. Experiment with them, but not before or during races.

The best way to use these products is by themselves with water, not in conjunction with each other. For example, if you are going to use gels, don't use them with energy bars and sports drinks in the same run. It is simply going to be too much for your gastrointestinal system to handle. Likewise, if you want to use energy bars, do not combine them with gels or sports drinks. Each one of these products is designed to provide enough carbohydrate for you to finish the run.

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