Friday, June 8, 2012

Fueling Your Muscles During Exercise: What's the Best Option?

Contrary to popular belief, all athletes need carbohydrates, not protein, to fuel their muscles before, during and after exercise. Endurance athletes need greater amounts of carbs to keep them going for optimal performance. Fruit, sports drinks and other supplements supply carbohydrates and are all potential energy sources. What's the best option? It’s a good question; especially since there are many available--and a lot of lingo to decipher on labels.

In search of the best performance “fuel,” researchers at Appalachian State University compared the effects of a typical sports drink versus a banana on cycling performance. They found that during intense cycling, both options yielded comparable athletic performance, but that bananas have some additional benefits that sports drinks don’t. Bananas provide a "nutritional boost" due to their naturally occurring fiber, potassium and vitamin B6.

For the study, cyclists consumed the amount of carbohydrate recommended for replenishment during exercise: either 8 ounces of a 6% carbohydrate drink (in this case, Gatorade) or half a banana every 15 minutes during a road race lasting 2.5 to 3 hours. Blood samples were taken from the cyclists before and after exercise and analyzed for more than 100 markers of metabolism, none of which were significantly different between groups. Cyclists who consumed the bananas reported feeling more bloated and full after their race, likely due to the 15 grams of fiber contained in the amount of bananas they consumed (at least half the recommended daily recommendation). Both fruit and 6% carbohydrate sports drinks are options recommended by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for use during exercise.

So the question remains: which fuel is best?

Natural foods are a great fuel for our bodies. Bananas are cheap and easy to carry, peel and eat during exercise. Depending upon the type, intensity and duration of exercise you are performing, different commercial products or beverages may be more appropriate than whole foods. But whenever possible, fuel your body with food! It’s a more complete nutritional package with benefits that beverages and supplements may not have. Compare nutrients between foods and supplement options to make sure you select the best fuel for your particular type of exercise. Also be sure you don't over-do it on all the "extras" that can be included in supplements. In other words, avoid over-kill on nutrients. Taking in too much of certain electrolytes, vitamins and minerals may not have any added benefit or could even be harmful.

One medium banana contains about 27 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 105 calories, and is a good source of potassium (422 mg) and vitamin B6 (0.43 mg). 

Sixteen ounces of Gatorade contains 28 g carbohydrate coming from a sucrose-dextrose-fructose blend, 100 calories, 220 mg sodium and 60 mg potassium.

Gatorade’s G2 line is an option for those looking to replenish electrolytes while sparing carbohydrates and calories. 

If you are training for a race and plan to use fruit, sports drinks or other supplements to refuel, make sure you “practice” with the type of fuel you plan to use before the real race so that there are no surprises. Talk with your trainer and dietitian about your exercise, nutrition and refueling plans for optimal performance.

Sources: Science DailyPLoS One
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