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Whole Food vs. Sports Drinks, Bars And Chews

Which type of nutrition is better for endurance athletes?

Which type of nutrition is better for endurance athletes?

Believe it or not, there was a time when sports drinks, energy bars and recovery drinks didn’t exist. In the days before the advent of ergogenic products, endurance athletes used real food and drinks to get the energy they needed during competition. Tour de France cyclists drank sodas, Ironman triathletes ate bananas, and Boston Marathon runners drank water.

Real food and drinks still have a small place in endurance competition, but they have been marginalized by packaged products such as sports drinks, carbohydrate gels, and energy chews that are formulated for one specific use. Lately, however, real food and drinks have started to make a comeback — in the exercise science laboratory, at least. Several recent studies have pitted everyday snacks and beverages against familiar ergogenic products to test the widely held assumption that the latter work better. Let’s take a quick look at a few of these studies.

Coconut Water vs. Sports Drinks

Among the most recent studies of this kind was conducted by researchers at the University of Memphis and published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in January 2012. Twelve fit young men were asked to run for 60 minutes on a treadmill without drinking, then rehydrate during a rest period, and finally step back onto the treadmill to run to exhaustion at high intensity. This protocol was repeated on four separate occasions with a different beverage used for hydration each time: bottled water, pure coconut water, coconut water from concentrate, or a sports drink.

The researchers found no difference in the ability of these four beverages to rehydrate the subjects. There were slight differences in performance in the post-rehydration run, with subjects lasting longest after drinking the sports drink, but these differences were not statistically significant and could have happened randomly.

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Bananas vs. Sports Drinks

Another recent study, which got a good deal of attention when it was published in the online journal PLoS One in May 2012, entailed a faceoff between bananas and a sports drink. Fourteen trained cyclists completed a pair of 75K time trials, eating bananas during one of them and drinking a sports drink during the other. The two energy sources were rationed to ensure that the subjects took in the same amount of carbohydrate in both time trials.

The average finish time was about three minutes, or 2 percent, faster in the sports drink time trial than in the banana time trial. Again, however, the difference did not meet the minimum threshold for statistical significance, so the Appalachian State University scientists who conducted the study concluded that the effects of the two energy sources on performance were equal.

Raisins vs. Energy Chews

An even newer study, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in June, pitted raisins (get it?) against energy chews. Eleven male runners were required to run on a treadmill at a moderate intensity for 80 minutes and then complete a 5K time trial. (Brutal!) The protocol was repeated on three separate occasions (even more brutal!) with subjects ingesting either raisins, energy chews, or water during each.

In this case, the average times in the 5K time trial were almost identical in the raisin and energy chew trials and significantly faster than in the water trial.

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Chocolate Milk Vs. Recovery Drinks

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are aware that the dairy industry lately has been aggressively promoting lowfat chocolate milk as an alternative to specially formulated recovery drinks through its “My After” campaign. It has good reason to: Several studies have shown that low-fat chocolate milk is an effective alternative.

Researchers at the University of Texas, for example, compared the effects of three different drinks consumed after a hard bike workout on performance in a cycling time trial done four hours later. The three drinks were lowfat chocolate milk, a carbohydrate drink, and flavored water. The subjects performed significantly better in the time trial after drinking chocolate milk following the first workout.

Personal Preference

So, should you ditch the sports drinks, carbohydrate gels, energy chews, and recovery drinks in favor of real foods and beverages? If you prefer to stay as natural as possible whenever possible, go for it. There’s enough science to give you confidence that you won’t be sacrificing much performance, if any.

For my part, I’m going to stick with the conventional ergogenics. One concern I have is the tendency for sports drinks and gels to boost performance a little more than real food and drink alternatives, even if the difference is not statistically significant. Another concern I have is the risk of gastrointestinal distress with real foods and beverages. Several subjects in the coconut water study, for example, reported having stomach issues when drinking the coconut water while running.

Finally, I just don’t like chewing while exercising — especially while running. Many years ago, my friend T. J. Murphy ran the San Francisco Marathon. Before the race he handed a banana to a friend and instructed her to hand it to him when he passed her late in the race. Knowing he might not feel much like eating at that point he told her, “No matter what I say, make me take it!”

Sure enough, when T.J. passed his friend during the race he said, “No, please! There’s no way! I’ll puke!” His dutiful friend tried to make him take the banana but he refused, wisely.

I think of this story every time I see one of these new studies comparing real foods to ergogenic products.

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About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress, 2011). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit