Athletes engaged in endurance sports such as cycling, running and swimming need to consume copious amounts of fuel to provide energy for their physical exertions and to aid in recovery after training or competition.
While a healthy and balanced diet is the cornerstone of all sports nutrition, there are now also a large number of products on the market to enable athletes top up or maintain their energy levels during training or racing – preventing the energy depletion that causes athletes to ‘hit the wall’ or ‘bonk’, as well as to help in muscle recovery. Some advantages of these products over natural foods are their ease of storage and digestion as well as their portability and convenience.
Sports nutrition products typically fall under three main categories:
– Endurance: Typically loaded with high-energy complex carbohydrates, these are used to maintain fuel stores prior to or during training and competition;
– Hydration: These products are aimed at efficiently replacing fluids lost during exertion as well as other key nutrients such as electrolytes (salts);
– Recovery: Protein-rich recovery products help to restore tired muscles after exercise and aid in the creation of new muscle.
Such products also come in a number of different forms – in bar or liquid gel form for consumption on the go, or in powder/tablet form to be dissolved in water.
Keen athletes will aim to find of a blend of products and product forms that will address their nutritional needs before, during and after intense exercise and incorporate this blend as a key element of their overall training programme.
Always check the nutritional content of any energy supplement and ideally try to use different products in training before introducing them in a race situation. Different products will have different effects on the body and athletes can also have varying responses to the flavours and formulations. It is therefore a good idea to find products that suit your palate and energy needs, instead of introducing something new in a race situation that may not sit well in your stomach.
Endurance nutrition products consist of easily-digestible complex carbohydrates that deliver energy in the form of glycogen to the muscles, via the bloodstream.
Certain nutrition products are designed to be consumed prior to training or racing – ‘carbo-loading’ – to provide adequate stores of energy, while others are intended to be consumed during exercise to top up depleted energy stores.
Pre-exercise nutritional drinks generally come in powdered form with the correct measure dissolved in your water bottle, while ‘mid-event’ energy products are also found in gel or bar form.
Energy gels: Sachets of fluid loaded with complex carbohydrates and available in different fruit flavours. These are easily stowed in a backpack or jersey pocket and provide an immediate boost that makes them ideal to revive flagging muscles towards the end of a race or training session, or to tackle a particularly arduous hill climb or sprint. Ingredients and flavours will differ from brand to brand, with some athletes finding the sweet taste not to their palate – experiment to find a gel that delivers the energy kick you need without leaving a sickly taste.
Energy bars: These deliver a longer-lasting energy boost in bar form. Often, which energy boost you choose is a matter of personal preference. Some riders like the ‘quick shot’ of an energy gel, others prefer to munch down on their favourite bar. Find one you like!
Energy drinks: In tablet or powdered form. Designed to be dissolved in water and used while racing or training, with the promise of keeping fluid intake at optimum levels while also providing other essential nutrients. Some energy drinks also bundle complex carbohydrates with protein with studies suggesting that this aids the body’s ability to absorb carbs and provides more energy to the working muscles.
Key to differentiating between energy drinks is the type of drink and the amount of calories and carbohydrates per 100g – generally the higher the better, although again athletes may need to balance energy delivery with palatability.
Other drinks add caffeine which can help to reduce tiredness, improve concentration and lift flagging spirits – especially important in the mentally and physically tough final stages of a race or training session.
Isotonic energy drinks are high in electrolytes (minerals and salt such as potassium and sodium), which replace the salts expelled by the body through perspiration and help you to rehydrate quickly and effectively.
Athletes are advised to consume a volume of fluid greater than that lost in sweat during exercise, but fluid replacement alone will not guarantee re-hydration after exercise. Unless the electrolytes lost in sweat, especially sodium, are also replaced consumption of a large volume of fluid may simply result in it being lost again via the urine.
Athletes competing in hot, humid conditions may choose to prioritise fluid replacement over additional energy delivery. These type of products are often available in tablet format, with the tablets dissolved in your water bottle.
Most athletes know that time spent allowing muscles to rest, recover and rebuild is as important as any exertion. Recovery nutrition products are designed to help in this process, allowing muscles to recover more quickly and training time to be maximised.
They are typically a blend of complex carbs for refuelling and protein for muscle regeneration. Protein replenishes muscles, protecting them from being broken down and used by the body as fuel during intense and sustained exertion.
Recovery products are typically in powdered form to be dissolved in water or to form the basis of milkshakes. As with all sports nutrition products be sure to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines with regard to dosage and consumption.