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Back in the 70s and 80s, the best distance runners in the world just drank water during runs, perhaps with the occasional cup of flat cola towards the end of a marathon for an extra boost of energy.

Fast forward a few decades, and somehow the marketers of a dizzying array of sports drinks, gels, gus, bloks, and beans have convinced us that we need scientifically forumalted “hydration” and “fuel” every 30 minutes during a workout.

But confusion abounds about what we really need vs. what we’re being sold.

“Beware of dehydration, because it will hinder performance!”

“But don’t drink too much, or you could end up with hyponatremia!”

Not to mention the fact that all this stuff we’re now “supposed” to consume during physical exertion in no way resembles actual food. In fact, most of it is kind of scary.

The Tides are Turning:

Fortunately, though, science has begun backing the suspicion that all these products may just be over-priced, over-hyped versions of what we can easily find in nature.

Just last month, a study came out showing that raisins are as effective as sports chews in fueling workouts. And in May, another study found that bananas actually outperform sports drinks in fueling endurance exercise.

Imagine that, raisins and bananas! Two natural, low-cost, and widely available fruits.

What’s more, sports and energy drinks have also been shown to cause irreversible damage to teeth after just a few days of exposure. Think about how long that sports drink residue sits in your mouth during a long run, ride, or hike! Certainly long enough to start eating away at your tooth enamel.

Why Do We Need Carbohydrates?

Despite all the glitter any hype surrounding sports drinks and other carbohydrate supplements, the science behind fueling endurance exercise is actually relatively simple. A few points to consider:

  1. The human body uses carbohydrates (and carbohydrate stores, called glycogen) to fuel prolonged physical activity.
  2. The human body can typically only store enough carbohydrates/glycogen to fuel about 90 minutes of physical exertion. At this point, the body begins burning fat for fuel, which is less efficient.
  3. Thus, to avoid “hitting the wall” or simply feeling sluggish during long workouts and especially races, many athletes take in carbohydrates to supplement their body’s stores.
  4. Many popular carbohydrate supplements (including liquids, gels, and bloks/beans) also contain electrolytes, which usually just means a mixture of potassium, sodium, and sometimes magnesium. These minerals are lost with sweat, and replacement helps prevent electrolyte imbalance (e.g. hyponatremia).

So basically, a carbohydrate supplement should he high in carbohydrates, should contain some electrolytes, and must be easy to digest. Aha. This third point just might be how those supplement companies have made all their money.

Have they found some magic combination of sugars and other carbohydrates that are guaranteed to go down easily? Hardly! Although studies have shown that certain combinations of fructose and glucose are more readily absorbed by the body, the only way to know what will sit well in YOUR stomach is to experiment. On training runs and rides – not during races!

Natural Alternatives:

Have fun experimenting with the following natural carbohydrate sources. You’ll surely find one that works with your body and your sport. And when you do, you’ll be free of all those bottles and packets, refined sugars, food coloring, and hype!

  1. Dates – Dates are a super-dense (and delicious!) source of carbohydrates, and they’re just as portable as all those commercially available packets. They’re also a good source of several important vitamins and minerals, including calcium, magnesium  and potassium. A single medjool date packs about 18 grams of carbohydrate.
  2. Raisins – Raisins are also a dense source of carbohydrates, providing over 22 grams per 1 oz serving. And they’re a good source of potassium!
  3. Bananas – Stash a whole banana in the back of your cycling jersey or backpack, or bring a small, resealable bag of chunks or mashed banana along on a run.
  4. Coconut Water – Coconut water is amazing during long workouts! It helps you stay hydrated, while providing carbohydrates and electrolytes in levels similar to many sports drinks. Try alternating coconut water with plain water.

And finally, don’t forget recovery! Make one of these 5 Natural Energy Drinks or simply throw some blueberries in your smoothie and you’re well on your way to recovering from that workout.

For more tips on eating like an athlete, check out these 8 Amazing Plant-Powered Foods.

Image Credit: GORE-TEX® Products/Flickr

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