Seven things to know about sports fuels before you buy that value-pack

There’s so much in the media these days about what you should eat or drink before, during and after exercise – but much of the discussion is too simplistic and driven by companies trying to sell their products.

box of sports nutrition

Energy reserves…?

If you’re new to endurance sport or you have taken it up in the last decade, you’ve probably nervously filled your pockets with energy gels or chews, worrying that if you don’t knock them back at the rate specified on the back of the packet that your legs will melt into the ground. Or maybe you’ve worked out how many calories you burned in a workout and carefully ensured that they were replaced afterwards.

Here are the seven things you should be aware of when choosing how to fuel your workout:

  1. Everyone’s energy needs and capacity to absorb carbohydrates are different.
  2. If your workout is less than an hour, you don’t need to top-up during the session, you should be fine with just staying hydrated and having a small healthy snack to boost glycogen replenishment once you’ve finished
  3. Different products can vary hugely in terms of how much carbohydrate they contain, the type, whether they should be taken with water or not, whether or not they contain electrolytes – always compare the labels carefully before choosing
  4. There’s a limit to how much energy you can absorb per hour – more is not more with sports fuels and exceeding the amount that your body can absorb will lead to stomach problems (or ‘gastrointestinal distress’, to use the proper terminology).
Energy gel packets squeezed onto plate

What’s in those squidgy packets anyway?

  1. If your exercise is quite light or relatively short in duration, even if you consume only as much as your body can absorb or only the amount of calories that you have burned, you could still be consuming more than your body needs (stay tuned for my next article on fuelling for endurance to find out more about this). Having excess glucose in the blood causes the short-term high and low associated with high-GI foods, can lead to long-term health problems such as weight gain and long-term problems with blood sugar regulation.
  2. The high ratio of carbohydrates:water in sports fuels can cause gastrointestinal distress. So getting the quantity of carbs right is only part of the game. The amount of energy required compared to water will change depending on the temperature outside, but even in cold weather you need considerably more water than energy. Water is also used in the digestive process so if all your water intake is being used for sweat, there won’t be any left to digest that energy gel – this is why the effect happens more in hot weather. Trial and error is best for gauging how much water you need, don’t leave it to chance or you risk being dehydrated and without energy either.
  3. The body requires all nutrients in greater quantity when we are working out, not just pure carbohydrates and energy gels and chews often lack any other nutrients or at least are quite processed so we don’t absorb them as effectively as in their natural state. Digestion is certainly de-prioritised when we’re working out but you can train your body to keep it ticking over at lower intensities and this is really worthwhile if you can eat easy-to-digest, nutritious and energy-rich foods.

No matter how persuasive the advertising, sports chews or gels are not a ‘get out of jail free card’ and they won’t bring about miraculous performances if you haven’t been training. There are also plenty of natural (not to mention, cheaper!) alternatives that provide similar nutritional benefits (some perhaps marginally less effective for performance but better for your health long-term, others, arguably, better all round). Having said all this, there’s no denying that energy products are convenient and can be really useful if you’ve got lost and have covered much more distance than you intended and your legs are threatening mutiny. And yes, the placebo effect means that there may be an advantage in allowing yourself to believe the marketing slogans a little bit, but find out what you are consuming too and make sure you know why you are consuming it.

Stay tuned for my next article where I’ll be talking about energy needs while exercising.

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