A Whole Foods Approach to Sports Nutrition
If you're training for a half marathon or triathlon, do you need energy gels?
If you're a parent of a grade-school soccer or basketball player, should you buy sports energy bars for your kids?
Gatorade hit the shelves in the 1970s, PowerBar products emerged in the 1980s, and GU made its debut in the 1990s. What did athletes eat and drink before the $2 billion plus sports nutrition industry flooded the market with specialty products?
Athletes in the pre-sport nutrition industry relied on real, whole foods. Guess what? Some athletes still do!
Pros and Cons of Sports Foods
It's easy to throw a sports bar into your gym bag. Unlike a banana, it won't turn mushy and brown. Sports bars also come in a variety of flavors that echo candy bars, making us feel virtuous and healthy while we get our chocolate caramel crunch fix.
Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade come in fun colors and flavors, plus they contain the right mix of carbohydrates and electrolytes like sodium and potassium to keep an exercising body hydrated. But unless you're exercising for more than an hour, plain water hydrates your body just as well as sports drinks.
Sport gels and fuels like GU and sport beans provide a blast of easily absorbed carbohydrate, often combined with caffeine. They come in convenient little packages that you can stuff in a pocket, but they don't provide any better energy than honey or fig cookies.
Saving Money While Fueling Your Body
In my local grocery store, a PowerBar Recovery bar costs $1.59. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich that provides a similar amount of calories, carbohydrate, and protein costs only 45 cents. Use natural jelly and peanut butter, and you also avoid added sugars. Add 8 ounces of chocolate milk, and you get even more nutrition value for only 76 cents total.
A single pack of GU energy gel, used by many athletes during exercise to provide carbohydrate for extra energy, costs a little more than $1 at a local running store. You can get the same fast-digesting 25 grams of carbohydrate from 10 Lifesaver Gummies candy pieces for only 40 cents.
Whole Foods for an Active Body
Sports nutrition expert Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, recommends a variety of healthy, whole foods in her book Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein. These foods aren't just for meals; they make great sports fuel during and after exercise. If you want to save money, consume fewer processed foods, and provide essential energy and hydration sources during exercise, try these whole food suggestions.
During moderate to hard aerobic activity lasting more than 60 minutes, carbohydrates provide about 50% of our energy source. Christie Menna, ACSM, HFS, who works with female long-distance runners, recommends consuming 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour of aerobic exercise. That might be one packet of GU with 8 ounces of a sports drink, or you could choose whole foods. Experiment with a variety of foods to find out what works best for you. For example, you might try a banana and fig cookies while biking but find that, during a run, your stomach rebels against anything other than gummy bears.
Mona Rosene, MS, RD, a triathlete and the owner of Peak to Peak Nutrition, uses peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to fuel her triathlon training. And a group of women who trained and competed in the 2008 More magazine half-marathon in New York City relied on pretzel sticks, unbuttered popcorn, graham crackers, cheese crackers, and water to fuel their training sessions.
You can also try making your own sports drink by diluting 100% fruit juice with water. Add a pinch of salt or munch on salted pretzel sticks during activity to supply necessary sodium. Rosene adds 5 to 10 grams of plain whey protein powder to green tea for a refreshing and antioxidant-rich sports beverage.
Rehydrate to replace fluid lost in sweat and consume a combination of carbohydrate and protein within 30 minutes after exercise to replenish energy stored in muscles.
Drink 100% fruit or vegetable juice, which contains carbohydrates and fluid. Clark recommends watery fruits such as watermelon and grapes that provide fluid, carbohydrates, vitamins, and potassium.
Drink chocolate milk, which contains both carbohydrates and protein and encourages muscle recovery just as well as most commercial sports drinks, according to a 2006 study from the Human Performance Laboratory in Indianapolis.
Pack a cooler or insulated lunch bag with string cheese, yogurt, whole grain crackers, or a turkey and lettuce sandwich on whole wheat bread for a quick post-workout snack. Bring along iced green tea for a beverage.
Enjoy a bowl of whole grain cereal and milk, spaghetti and meatballs, or oatmeal made with milk and sprinkled with dried fruit and nuts once you get home.
- Lynn Grieger, RD, CDE, cPT
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