Strongrabbit: Sports Drinks and Cliff Shots and Gu’s—OH MY!

sports nutrition

Read part one: Pre-Workout Fuel here.


Yes, I am the not-so-shining example for this week’s fueling lesson. I felt it only fair since last week I used the Mullet’s pre-workout consumption blunders as an illustration of what not to do. So, here you go.


Sunday, September 2, 2007, 4:30am, 2.5 hours to gun-time at the Virginia Beach Rock ‘N Roll half marathon.  I jump out of bed (too wired to sleep), and start my pre-race ritual for the 13.1 mile run ahead of me: 16oz H2O, 8oz Gatorade, a large bagel with almond butter and banana, and coffee (to get the colon rollin’ long before race time). I stuff a couple of Gu’s into my running shorts pocket and head for the starting point.

This was my first really big road race, boasting 20,000+ registrants. It was pretty insane. I’d previously run the Battleship half marathon here in Wilmington, NC, and while it was an awesome race of maybe 1000 runners total, there were long stretches when it was just me and the road—very sparse crowd support and definitely not enough cowbell.

So, it was very exciting to get to the starting point and absorb the energy of 20,000 fellow runners. I’m sure you feel the same adrenaline rush when you’re one among the sea of paddlers at the start of a race.  I guess you would call it pure stoke?

Finally, my corral of runners got moving. It’s amazing how much faster you start out with 7,000 runners in front of you and another 10,000 chasing you. Around Mile 4, I looked down at my watch to see that I was still way ahead of my planned race pace. Rationally, I knew that going out too fast can be the kiss of death for meeting a personal race goal. But I felt so good. The bands were awesome. The cheerleaders were spirited. The spectators were spectacular. At Mile 8, I was high-fiving little kids on the sideline. I was well on my way to clobbering my previous PR!

And then it happened. My energy plummeted out of nowhere. At mile 10 panic was closing in on me and my pace had slowed considerably. By mile 11 the sun was baking, the road was hard, and my legs were lead. I was walking the hydration stops and it was getting harder and harder to turn that walk back into a run. The defeating voice of fatigue took control of my brain. I can’t do this. I’m not going to make it. I slowed to a walk at mile 12. All sorts of people passing me. Only one more mile to go and I totally felt like giving up. Any of you ever felt that way?

So, what the heck happened to me? Sure, going out too fast didn’t help. Every racer quickly learns (no matter what sport) that pacing yourself is crucial to finishing strong. Go out too hyped up, too fast and you will likely blow your goals, and not in a good way. But I had also made another huge mistake. Remember the discussion in my previous post about the risk of “bonking” when we don’t fuel up properly PRE-workout or PRE-race? I did great in that department for this race. It was the DURING-THE-RACE-NUTRITION that I completely blew. I knew better, too. But I got too caught up in the rush to take the time to replenish my glucose levels and hydrate at regular intervals during my race.  The result? I fell short of my goal, sure–but even worse, I felt TERRIBLE doing it.

So I put on my 20/20 hindsight lenses to see what I could have done DURING my race to finish strong and happy. Maybe learning from my race blunders can help some of you avoid that dreadful bonk and the mental menace that comes with it.

Amy’s fuel DURING her 13.1 mile run

·      Hydration: skipped the first couple of hydration stations—felt I had consumed enough water / sports drink pre-race. I grabbed water starting at the mile 4 station, then alternated water and sports drink. I was so excited about my great start that I wanted to keep it up, so I barely slowed down to insure that the hydrating substance actually made it into my oral cavity. (Concomitantly running and drinking from those little paper cups was harder than I thought).

·      Carb (glucose) consumption: Gu energy gel (100 calories from 25gm sugar per packet + 100mg caffeine). I had one around the 60 minute mark, and then another at around 90 minutes.

·      That’s it.

Shoulda, Coulda, Gonna

I’ll start with the hydration “shoulda’s” first.

1. I should have started drinking earlier, like around the 15 to 20 minute mark. It was hot and humid that early September morning, and I’m a profuse sweater. I won’t rehash all the reasons why you need water (see my “pre-workout” post), just make sure you have enough! And if you’re out there for longer than 60 to 90 minutes, remember to also have a source of electrolyte (sodium and potassium) replacement readily available to replace losses through sweat and to prevent potentially dangerous hyponatremia, aka “water intoxication” (see the pre-workout post for more on hyponatremia).

2. I should have consumed a larger amount (like 4oz) of water or sports drink every 15 to 20 minutes. Those little paper cups don’t hold that much. I should’ve taken 2 cups. And actually taken the time to get it all into my mouth, even if it meant adding a few precious seconds to my race time. According to Matt Fitzgerald, an ultrarunner and author of The Cutting-Edge Runner: How to Use the Latest Science and Technology to Run Longer, Stronger, and Faster, the current recommended drinking rate for endurance workouts is 400 to 800 mL/hour. That translates into roughly 15 to 30 oz/hour. And obviously you wouldn’t want to down all that in one take, unless you want to projectile puke on the person ahead of you and ruin both your chances of having a fun race. So spread it out into 15 to 20 minute intervals.

In the previous post, I reviewed why hydration is crucial, but you don’t want to overhydrate, either. This includes overhydrating on sports drinks. You have to find the balance that works for you. That’s why YOU MUST EXPERIMENT A LOT BEFORE RACE DAY. Use the hydration intake range discussed in the previous paragraph as the starting point, and listen to your body to tweak as needed for your next workout. Consider your body size and sweat habits. Paddlers who barely glisten will have lower hydration requirements than paddlers who sweat buckets, like me. Someone who’s 5’3”, 115lbs will likely need less hydration than someone who’s 6’4” and 250lbs. We are all individuals with individual needs. Practice figuring out what yours are now.

Science sidebar: To “salt tablet” or not to “salt tablet”?

Although a typical sports drink (Gatorade, Powerade, etc) contains less salt (sodium) than sweat does, available evidence demonstrates that a typical sports drink provides enough salt to optimize performance and protect health, provided that the athlete does not overdrink. In a New Zealand study of Ironman participants, salt tablets were found to be unnecessary to maintain normal blood sodium levels. Based on all the research on salt intake in endurance events, there’s no additional benefit to consuming extra salt.

Now onto carb-fueling during workouts and races. I’m totally going to steal from an article written by Andrea Hacker Thompson, MS, RD (Masters of Science, Registered Dietitian) because I like her analogy. For endurance exercise, she has us picture the body as a racecar with two fuel tanks. Activity duration and intensity determine whether the body will primarily consume fuel from Tank A–the body’s fat stores, or Tank B–the body’s carbohydrate stores (glycogen in muscle and liver). Tank A (fat) is the primary fuel for low-intensity exercise (ie, a moderately brisk walk or a “sight-seeing” paddle). As the intensity of a workout increases, the body’s ability to use Tank A (fat) decreases. It needs to switch to Tank B (carbs). When we’re exercising for less than 90 minutes, Tank B is good to go—it has enough stored carbs to power us through. The problem is, our “B” tanks can only store around 2,000 calories of glycogen at a time, which fuels not only our hard-working muscles, but also our brains. So, workouts longer than 90 minutes mandate a nutritional plan to prevent the “low fuel light” from coming on. When Tank B gets low on fuel, we’re physically and mentally fatigued. I’m convinced that this explains how quickly Negative Nelly gained control of my mental outlook during those late miles of my race. To use a Wilson, NC, expression: my brain was “just plum give out”.

So what did I do well, and what should I have done differently in terms of carb intake? It all comes down to pit stop planning—knowing when you are going to fuel, and how much you are going to consume.

1. Pit stop timing. I did OK here. My projected time for this particular half-marathon was 1:55 to 2:00 hours. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), I should have been fueling every 45 to 60 minutes of exercise. Maybe I should’ve taken that first energy gel a bit earlier, say at 45 minutes instead of 60 minutes into the race. And then my next pit-stop would have been at the 90 minute mark to get me through.

2. Pit stop consumption amounts. This, I think, was a big blunder on my part. ACSM recommends 30 to 60 grams (120 to 240 calories) of carbs per hour. Recent data suggest that even 90 grams (360 calories) may be tolerable (see below). I was basically getting 25 grams (100 calories) per hour. And since I “sped” out of the gate (at least compared to my usual pace), I probably could’ve used more towards the 60 gram mark. Sure, I was getting some carb-containing sports drink along the way, but not enough to really bring my total carb intake into the recommended hourly range. Most sports drinks provide roughly 50 calories / 14 grams of carbs per 8oz serving. So it’s probably a better idea to mix in a non-fluid carb source such energy gels or bars. Again, individuality plays a role in determining the amount of carbs each person needs. We come in different sizes and with different metabolic rates, so I’ll repeat myself here: Use this info as a reference point, and experiment, experiment, experiment.

Science sidebar: How mixing up sugar types benefits endurance training

Did you know that the body has a limited number of glucose transporters? Studies have shown that these specific transporters can carry only around 60 grams of carbs from the intestines to the muscles per hour. Recent research indicates that consuming as variety of sugars (ie, not just glucose) allows more fuel to become available per hour. That’s because different types of sugars (carbs) use different transporters. Generally, we consume more than just glucose when we consume quick-fuels during workouts. (Sports drinks, for example, tend to have glucose and fructose.) So, if you eat a banana which consists of sucrose, fructose, and glucose and thus uses different transporters, your muscles may have access to more fuel (up to 90 grams of carbs/hour; 360 calories) than if you consume just one kind of sugar.

Choosing the Right Quick Fuel for YOU

So what TYPE of quick-food do you choose? Anyone who’s new to endurance sports of any kind can become completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices out there! Not only are there a gazillion brands of training fuels out there, but within those brands there are different “vehicles”—gels vs beans vs bars vs shots vs liquids. And then there’s the more natural route to take—bananas, honey, oranges, fig newtons etc. When it comes to deciding on a quick-fuel source for your endurance workouts, it’s really trial and error. For the umpteenth time, EXPERIMENT AHEAD OF TIME. There are lots of factors to consider that may help you find just the right quick-food for you.

· What does your GI tract prefer? If you are endurance training or racing, part of your training program is to practice quick-fueling so you can train your intestinal tract as well as your heart, lungs and muscles! What sits well with me may not feel so great to you.

· Caffeine content: read the labels to see if products contain caffeine or not. Caffeine gives some people a boost, and others a palpitating heart or a nauseated gut.

· Taste: I love chocolate espresso Gu’s. They make John gag. Buy a couple of different flavors and find one you like.

· Consistency / texture: some people hate the “cake frosting” texture of energy gels. I hate having to chew when I’m running. To me, taking the time to slow down long enough to chew dense, chalky bars or even sports beans is a deal breaker. Plus, I have to immediately wash it all down with enough fluid to not have a big blotch of bar paste stuck on my tooth for the ever-so-lovely-finish-photo. But I know lots of people who swear by their beans or bars.

· Ease of use / portability / storage: I know nothing about the logistics of trying to eat while racing on a standup paddleboard in the middle of the ocean (OK, maybe you’re not in the MIDDLE of the ocean, but you know what I mean). For someone like me (ie, someone terrified of falling in, and terribly uncoordinated on bouncy surfaces), this would be quite a process most likely ending in some sort of rescue operation. But you guys are pro’s, so I’ll leave figuring out the logistics up to you. Just another factor to consider and play with as you train.

· Natural vs “engineered” sports foods: our very own, indispensable Katie Elzer-Peters (of View From the Back fame) has recently alerted me to a book titled Feed Zone Portables: A Cookbook Of On The Go Food For Athletes ( Sports physiologist Allen Lim and chef Biju Thomas have cooked up 75 recipes—most with 8 or fewer ingredients—that were designed for quick fueling and easy consumption by endurance cyclists. The gluten-free chocolate chip cookie recipe looks awesome and makes 12 golf-ball-sized treats each with 91 calories, 15 grams of carbs, 116mg sodium, 1 gram fiber, 2 grams protein, and 43% water content. [READ THE REVIEW HERE]

· Prep time: Do you need something that’s just grab-n-go? Then maybe you should stick to the “engineered” sports foods. Or do you have the interest and time to make your own sources of quick fuel? Recipes like those in Feed Zone Portables require some prep, but I admit they sound a lot more interesting, wholesome, and yummy than gels or beans. 

I’m guessing that like me, many of you reading this have had an awful workout or race experience at some point. But with those awful experiences come great opportunities to reflect on what you did and to learn invaluable lessons on what to do and what NOT to do the next time. And if you got only one tidbit out of this article, please let it be that YOU are an INDIVIDUAL. No one else in the whole planet is like you. So experiment and find what quick-fuels work well for you long before race day. If I can save just one person from having a sucky race, my Virginia Beach debacle will be all worth it.

Up next: What to consume POST-workout.

Until then: get out there and shake what ya mama gave ya!

Alter-ego D.J. BombBiscuit Tunes:

Suggested song for some serious heart-pumpin’ interval training: “Ya Mama (Push the Tempo)” by Fatboy Slim and Moguai. Available on iTunes. LOVE IT!!!!!!!

Sources used for this article:

1.     Andrea Hacker Thompson, MS, RD. “Preventing the ‘Low-Fuel Light’ in Endurance Exercise”.

2.     Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD. “Protein, carbs and endurance performance: finding the right balance.”

Matt Fitzgerald. “How much salt do you need while running?”

Choose the right quick fuels to stay strong, smart, and positive on race day