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Have you ever lacked energy during a long training session? It can be difficult to choose what to eat or drink during exercise, especially when you read that sugar is bad for your health. Here are a few simple tips to maximize your energy during training sessions lasting an hour or more.
It is true that eating excessive amounts of sugar increases your risk of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular illnesses. Over half the North American population eats too much, that’s why it’s a serious concern. However, when you exercise, you need sugar, since it is used to produce energy. Sugar isn’t damaging to health if it is used up by your body as you eat it. After around an hour of high intensity effort, your carbohydrate stores are quickly depleted and need to be replaced, otherwise you risk quickly running out of energy. That’s why it’s important to consume sugar to feel good and perform well during a long and intense training session.
For training, it’s important to choose simple carbohydrates that will be rapidly absorbed, like glucose, sucrose and maltodextrin. In theory, the body is able to absorb up to 60g of glucose and maltodextrin, and 30g of fructose every hour, a total of 90g of carbohydrates an hour. While high level athletes need to eat that much, a smaller quantity (for example 30g per hour) is enough for a recreational athlete. You should also know that it is possible to increase your capacity to use carbohydrates while you train and improve your tolerance to carbohydrates during exercise. If you choose to eat energy gels, it’s important to take them with water to reduce your risk of gastrointestinal issues. Also, to avoid gastrointestinal symptoms, it’s best to choose a drink that isn’t too high in sugar (4 to 7% carbohydrates) to facilitate absorption.
It’s important to experiment several drinks, supplements or foods to find those that suit you, because their effects can vary from one person to another. This way, you’ll be able to find the products that are practical, tasty, energy-rich and easy for you to digest. To help you make a choice, take a look at the main ingredients in sports products, and how useful they actually are:
Glucose or Dextrose: simple sugar, absorbed rapidly.
Maltodextrin: simple sugar, absorbed via the same path as glucose. However, it is absorbed more rapidly than glucose. Also, it requires less water to become isotonic and be absorbed. Unlike other sugars, it doesn’t have much of a flavor, which can be interesting for those who don’t like too much sweetness.
Fructose: this sugar comes from fruits. It is absorbed differently than glucose and maltodextrin (absorbed by the liver), so there’s an advantage in choosing a gel or drink that combines glucose/maltodextrin and fructose to enable the absorption of more sugars at a time. Eat too much and it can cause digestive discomfort. People with irritable bowel syndrome should avoid it.
Maple syrup and honey: these are natural sugars which contain both glucose and fructose. They also contain antioxidants that reduce inflammation. Compared to glucose, they have a low glycemic index, which means they are digested, absorbed and metabolised more slowly, resulting in blood sugar levels that don’t rise as quickly or as much. They can also prevent a quick drop in blood sugar and are a better choice for diabetics.
Sodium and potassium: Sodium and potassium losses don’t usually affect performance in most cases. Scientific studies don’t confirm that a loss of sodium and potassium leads to muscular cramps. It can be useful to drink a beverage containing sodium during a long training session, especially if it’s hot or if you sweat a lot.
Antioxidants: Most often these are the vitamins E and C, which help fight inflammation among other things. A balanced diet will help you meet all your daily vitamin and mineral needs. For athletes who train a lot, a daily multivitamin supplement is recommended. It isn’t necessary to take specific vitamins during training.
Caffeine: Drinking caffeine can improve performance during endurance sports or intermittent sports by helping you exercise longer and helping your body use fat for fuel, which also helps save your glycogen stores. It’s important to note that not everyone reacts to caffeine the same way. Genetic predisposition means that some people will be very stimulated by caffeine while others will only feel minimal effects. Caffeine can cause side effects such as palpitations, irritability, anxiety and trembling.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA): Proteins are made of amino acids. There are nine essential amino acids, essential because the body can’t make them itself and needs to find them in food to ensure it meets its needs. Branched chain amino acids (BCAA) are made up of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. According to popular myth, BCAAs could potentially reduce the degradation of muscle proteins and delay exhaustion during endurance sports. However, studies haven’t been able to prove the effects of BCAAs on endurance performance or on delaying tiredness and prolonging exercise duration. Also, branched-chain amino acids are abundant in our food. A BCAA tablet usually contains 100mg valine, 50mg isoleucine and 100mg leucine. To compare, a 100g chicken breast is equivalent to 7 BCAA tablets, while 4 tablespoons of peanut butter is the same as 11 BCAA tablets.
In summary, during long training sessions, to maximize your energy levels, you need to remain properly hydrated, consume fast releasing sugars and a little salt. The other ingredients contained in commercial products are optional. You can use a commercial sports drink, or make your own. If the type of sport you practice permits it, and depending on your tolerance, you can also eat an energy rich snack like fruit compote or cereal bar.