With the myriad of sports drinks, gels, bars and chews now available you’d be forgiven for thinking these products are essential for performing well in sport. But there was a time when athletes ate actual food and still set world records – so are man-made sports supplements really necessary or could you do just as well – or better – eating ‘real’ foods?
Instead of drinking sports drinks, have bananas with water, which produce similar performance benefits, according to an Appalachian University study. Researchers found that bananas were just as effective as sports drinks for increasing performance in a 75-km cycling time trial. Trained cyclists consumed 0.2 g carbohydrate/kg of body weight every 15 minutes. On one occasion the carbohydrate was given in the form of a sports drink; on the other occasion it came in the form of bananas. It made no difference where the carbohydrate came from; the cyclists performed the same.
Dried fruit such as raisins are good alternatives to energy bars, sport beans, chews, and gels. A study by researchers at the University of California, Davis found that raisins were just as effective as sport chews for improving performance in a 5-km time trial (following an 80 min submaximal run) compared with water.
WATER AND COCONUT WATER
After exercise, water does a perfectly good job rehydrating you (plus food if you’ve lost significant electrolytes in sweat). Alternatively, there’s coconut water. It’s expensive but at least it’s ‘natural’ i.e. less processed than sports drinks. In one randomised, cross over, single blind study at the University of Memphis, coconut water proved to be as good as sports drinks or water in restoring fluid levels after treadmill running that caused a 2% loss of body weight.
Milk is one of the best recovery foods. It’s less expensive than commercial recovery drinks and it’s been shown to aid muscle growth, promote muscle repair, reduce muscle soreness and rehydrate the body – after both resistance and endurance exercise, in men as well as women. Compared with traditional sports drinks, 500ml milk consumed after training produces greater gains in muscle mass and strength as well as a greater aerobic capacity, less muscle soreness and reduced body fat levels Milk also rehydrates you better than isotonic sports drinks, according to a 2014 Australian study.
With real food, you’re getting a package of vitamins, minerals and fibre as well as carbs whereas with sports supplements you don’t, or you just get some ‘added’ vitamins or sodium. Real food is almost always cheaper (hooray!) and doesn’t come with all the flavourings, colours, citric acid, acidity regulators, preservatives, stabilisers and sweeteners that you get in those commercial products.
Here are some more real food alternatives for fuelling on the go (i.e. intense exercise longer than 60 min):
- Dried pineapple, apple, mango and dates
- Nuts & seeds
- Pouches & squeezy tubes of fruit puree (baby food!)
- Fruit and Nut Bars
- Hazelnut cookies
- Super flapjacks
- Macadamia nut bars
For more, see Food For Fitness (4th edition)