Recently, there have been implied “guilt” and “guilt-free” options when it comes to sports nutrition. It suggests that guilt options are high in sugar content such as our standard gels and chews and that you should feel guilty for using them. Whereas the guilt-free option features only ‘clean ingredients’.
Confused? I’d be surprised if you weren’t. See the reason chews and gels have worked so well with us endurance athletes, is because our bodies run well on sugars. And what’s even more interesting, is that these “guilt-free clean ingredients only” options still contain sugar (because we need it!) they may feature in other forms such as fructose (sugar from fruit) which, for some is the one ingredient needed to send them running for the nearest toilet.
So whilst it is ideal to have a nutritionally balanced ‘diet’ that features minimally-processed foods without the added ton of sugar, the fact is our body’s needs are different when it comes to exercise. And evermore different when it comes to long-distance exercise.
Specialist sports-based nutrition exists for this reason! Specialized sports-based snacks are formulated to be easily broken down and provide the ideal balance of nutrients (electrolytes, carbohydrates, fats, and protein) necessary for your body during exercise. For athletes interested in performance, choosing a nutrition product that is tailor-made to be consumed during activity can alleviate the anxiety that they are missing out on something that their body needs (and avoid another mile-18-hitting-the-wall-feeling).
What’s damaging here is the marketing. The idea that you feel guilty for consuming a high-in-sugar product to help your body perform can be psychologically damaging. It has the power to side-track an athlete, choosing a less effective option for THEM to not feel the dread of guilt. But we know that under-fuelled training is inherently detrimental to an athlete’s health and performance (especially for females). As an athlete, the greater need is to take in sufficient calories during prolonged exercise, often through whatever sources your body can tolerate.
Training for ultra marathons I realised how much I had to eat on the run. And at first, I couldn’t stand it, but once soon found my feet (as it were) of what my stomach could handle, and the amounts proportionate to my needs (I am not the average 75kg male in which everything seems to be based from) I noticed an inherent difference in what my body was capable of doing. I use a mixture of mini sweets, bananas, a diluted fruit juice drink, jam sandwiches and mini flapjacks to see me through excessive miles, because 1. That works for me, and 2. Our bodies need carbohydrates!
Carbs break down into glucose – the body’s most natural and thus preferred (and most efficient) source of energy. But how you get them is up to you – but choosing to judge where those nutrients come from is a marketing tactic, not based on science and needs to be nipped in the bud.
Athletes like us crazies who fancy long distances should consider our personal needs from the demands of the race or event ahead of us. What’s the weather going to be like? Hows is the climate? What’s the terrain? What foods have you practised with and are comfortable consuming? How often are there refuelling stations? Do you have a dietary requirement? What can your stomach handle? (There’s an unlikely chance of being toilets nearby, or if there are – could be a queue that interrupts your race momentum and time).
The marketing ploy
Please do not be fooled by marketing tactics. You don’t need to look far in the sports and fitness nutrition world for buzz words like ‘clean eating’ and ‘natural’ whereas anything else out of the ordinary or unrecognisable words, is surrounded with fear and ‘should be avoided’ attitudes.
Having fear-based, guilty thoughts around your body and what you’re using to fuel your amazing athleticism should not be happening. The industry is already rife with negative messaging about body image and restrictive eating over the more important things like eating enough to support what you’re asking your body to do. You see, because when you’re running an ultra, or even running for over an hour about town, the only thing you should be afraid of is not eating ENOUGH (and bears, who may see you as an all-natural, guilt-free, free-range snack).
At the end of the day, I hope you pick foods or snacks that help you perform, feel strong and keep running, over how ‘clean’ a company claims it is. If you’re struggling with this concept, I read something not too long ago stating that every bead of sweat that drips from your fact is a mixture of electrolytes. They’re ALL needed to maintain fluid balance and help your body perform any movement – just to get your muscles to contract.
And just like we replenish water loss from sweat with drink, we need to do the same with food to keep energy high throughout hours of training or racing.
When electrolyte levels drop too low, performance slums quickly! Major signs of that are muscle fatigue, cramping, and poor thermo-regulation (making heat unbearable and disorientation sets in). In extreme cases, consuming a large volume of water without sufficient electrolytes can lead to dangerously low levels of sodium in the blood, a potentially life-threatening condition known as hyponatremia.
“The electrolytes lost in the highest concentrations through sweat are sodium and chloride,” says Maria Dalzot, a sports dietitian and competitive mountain runner. “These electrolytes must be tightly regulated for the body to function properly.” Potassium, magnesium and calcium are also lost in sweat, though “in such small amounts that they are not of concern while exercising and can be easily replaced in your everyday diet.”
How can we ensure we’re keeping balance? Read on…