Emily Schmitt, Ph.D.
Should I “Enhance” Athletic Performance with Dietary Products?
This is one of the questions that constantly arise in the sports medicine and performance world. And to be honest, it is a difficult question to address. Researchers have studied diet manipulation for years in relation to delaying the onset of fatigue, and these studies have resulted in mixed conclusions. Scientific publications conclude that carbohydrate (products such as energy gels or Gatorade) ingestion before, during, and after exercise is critical for performance, but these are countered by studies declaring water to be the only necessity and to not waste money on expensive products.
What Are You Training For?
It is important to identify what type of race you are training for. Athletes competing in triathlons or marathons, for example, will have different nutritional needs than those competing in 5ks. Those who compete in long distance races need to be aware of the type and timing of fuel they ingest during a race. Individuals’ dietary needs differ, as do training plans, so it is important to remember that what works for you might not work for someone else.
Energy gel for Performance
Energy gels are designed to be quickly and easily digestible for consumption during endurance events, especially long distance running. They contain sodium, potassium, and carbohydrate, three substances depleted from your body during endurance competitions. They also contain branched chain amino acids that can help marathoners or tri-athletes to delay the onset of fatigue. It is recommended that if you compete at this level, you should consume some form of an energy gel about 20-30 minutes before fatigue. It remains critical
to experiment with timing and what will work for you during practices, rather than on the day of competition.
Drawbacks to Energy Gels
An energy gel is essentially a lump of sugar, absorbed directly into the intestine so plenty of water should be taken with it to help with absorption. The sugar causes blood redistribution to the stomach and away from the working muscles. That is why it is very important to drink plenty of water when ingesting an energy gel. Sometimes this can cause nausea and actually decrease performance. If you find that an energy gel does not work for you, try another product like Gatorade. Gatorade is emptied from the stomach quicker and has a faster absorption rate than GU.
So What’s the Bottom Line?
For competitions lasting less than one hour, your main focus should be water consumption. If you are competing for over an hour or tend to get nauseous with an energy gel, drink a sports drink to help replenish fluids and decrease the possibility of dehydration. If your competition lasts several hours, you should consider taking an energy gel about 20 minutes before your expected fatigue point. Remember it has taken some of the best athletes in the world a few years to understand what works best for them. Be patient and seek out an exercise physiologist for up-to-date information on carbohydrate replacement and other exercise and performance questions.
- Bachle, L., Eckerson, J., Albertson, L., Ebersole, K., Goodwin, J., Petzel, D. (2001). “The effect of fluid replacement on endurance performance.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 15(2): 217-224.
- Smith, J W., Zachwieja, J.J., Peronnet, F., Passe, D.H., Massicotte, D., Lavoie, C., Pascoe, D.D. (2010) “Fuel selection and cycling endurance performance with ingestion of [13C] glucose: evidence for a carbohydrate dose response.” Journal of Applied Physiology 108: 1520-1529.