Real Food vs Bars, Gels, and Sport Drinks


You’re headed out for a 3 hour ride and you’re wondering whether to take a banana, gel, or extra sport drink to get the carbs you need for endurance. Which one is better?

According to a couple of recent studies, any of those are equally as good at getting you through that ride.

In the first study, researchers gave trained cyclists 150 grams of carbohydrate from either bananas or Gatorade before a 75 km cycling performance test and every 15 minutes during the test. No other sources of carbs were given.

Results showed no differences between the groups in mean power, rate of perceived exertion (RPE), heart rate, blood glucose levels, or total time to finish the test. 

However, subjects in the banana group reported feeling significantly fuller and more bloated than those in the Gatorade group, most likely due to the additional 15 grams of fiber they consumed from the bananas.

This study suggests several things to think about. First, bananas are just as good as Gatorade at providing adequate amounts of carbohydrate during a 3 hour ride. Second, the fiber content of bananas (or any fruit) can cause feelings of fullness and bloating so a sport drink might be better for that reason (although if you train with bananas and fruit, your body will adapt to the fiber intake).

Third, as long as you are getting adequate amounts of carbohydrates during exercise from sources that your GI system can tolerate, it probably doesn't matter whether it's real food or a sports nutrition product.

Another recent study suggests this to be true. A group of trained runners ran 80 minutes on a treadmill at 75% VO2 max followed by a 5k time trial (TT) in three separate trials separated by 7 – 14 days. In the first trial they were given only water, in the 2nd trial they were given raisins, and in the third trial they were given sport “chews”. Carbohydrate content was the same in the latter two trials.

Results showed no significant differences between the raisin trials and the “chews” trials in VO2, heart rate, RPE, lactate, glycerol, blood glucose, muscle soreness or fatigue ratings, gastrointestinal symptoms, or finish times. There was, however, a significant difference between the raisin and the chews trial and the water-only trial: the runners finished up to a minute faster in both the carbohydrate-containing trials compared to the water-only trial.

Thus, real food may be just as good as commercially-made sport products in supporting running performance and both are better than taking in only water.

My take on both of these studies: I prefer real food over commercially-made products any day but there are times when the latter is more convenient. Whether you choose a banana or sports drink for a long run or ride depends on which one is handy, which one you like better, and which one is more "transportable"; bananas can get smooshed in a bike jersey very easily!

Some kind of carbohydrate is better than none for endurance activity so it's up to you what the source will be. Whatever you use, be sure to practice with that food or product several times before race day!

Ride on!

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