Let me cut to the chase. The goal of an endurance athlete should be fat adaptation. With fasted training, nutrient timing, and real food, there is absolutely no requirement for sports nutrition recommendations of one gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight (g/kg BW), NINETY grams of carbohydrate per hour (g/hr), or the downright absurd 7-10g/kg BW in race week. You can read more about that here in “Say no to carbohydrate loading“.
As a Sports Nutritionist, I personally don’t recommend a text book low carb high fat (LCHF) approach, but my athletes are trained in the timing of carbohydrate consumption on a day-to-day basis, and the strategic use of carbohydrates to support top end, or high intensity training and racing. It is important to remember that much of the current LCHF research has been conducted on elite male athletes in laboratory conditions, and as experts in the field we must be mindful of how this translates to the real world. Secondly, an intake that is too low carbohydrate will result in the down regulation of pyruvate dehydrogenase, an enzyme that is essential for the efficient use of glucose, our predominant high intensity fuel.
The strategic use of carbohydrates
Before we dive further into sports nutrition and how you can use carbohydrates strategically for high intensity training and racing, here’s some important background information for you:
One of the most common ingredients you will come across in commercial sports nutrition products is maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a polysaccharide, or long chain or complex carbohydrate, which is easily digestible and rapidly absorbed as glucose. Maltodextrin has a far greater absorption rate (15-18%) than that of simple sugars, such as fructose (6-8%). It is most often accompanied by fructose (whether in its direct form, or disguised by terms including grape juice, apple juice concentrate, fruit juice or dates), as research studies of the past have shown that there is enhanced uptake with a combination of sugars and therefore the use of multiple carbohydrate transporters. This may have been relevant in the days of 90g/hour, but with fat adaptation comes the reduced reliance on exogenous fuel sources. This is relevant for many athletes, as In excess, fructose is a significant contributing factor to gastrointestinal (GI) distress.
Freedom Fuel to the rescue
A few years ago now I created Freedom Fuel to provide a gluten free, refined sugar free, low fructose and all natural option to store-bought gels. Many slight variations have been made by athletes and Coaches who now follow my approach, but the framework remains. I’ve had athletes race 5-hour Ironman bikes on Freedom Fuel alone, and helped resolve countless cases of GI upset. I’d love for you to try Freedom Fuel during your next long run or ride and report back on how you went.
Freedom Fuel v1.1
Ingredients (Serves 1)
- 2 teaspoons rice malt syrup
- 1 teaspoon medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil
- ¼ cup raspberries
- The juice from ¼ lemon
- A pinch of Himalayan salt
- A dash of hot water
- Blend all ingredients until smooth.
- Pour through a strainer to remove pips. Transfer carefully into a gel flask and seal well.
Please note: one serve is ~20g of carbohydrates and 5g of fat, so please make multiple serves based on your exercise duration and fuelling requirements. This recipe can also be used like a commercial liquid fuel on the bike. To make a “multi-hour” bottle, simply multiply the recipe by the number of serves you require and add enough water to reach your desired consistency and taste. Please trial this in training – remember nothing new happens on race day.
The only small downside of Freedom Fuel is the practical or logistical considerations when running. For a half marathon you should only need one or two serves, which will easily fit in one gel flask, which you can carry in the palm of your hand. As the distance extends beyond 21km however, unless you like to run with a fuel belt or similar, then I can understand why you might prefer a store-bought alternative that can be easily carried.
Keep reading to find out what you should choose as a back up plan to Freedom Fuel.
“Natural” store-bought alternatives
I use the term natural loosely here and refer more to the unique ingredients when compared to traditional gels. Let’s be honest, there’s really nothing natural about anything mass-produced and squeezed into a small pouch, but you know what I mean.
lngredients: Maltodextrin, Water, Dextrose, VFuel Endurance Formula (MCT Oil, Taurine, Glucuronolactone, Ornithine Alpha-Ketoglutarate (OKG), Citrulline Malate, Magnesium Aspartate, Sodium Citrate, Potassium Aspartate), Pure Vanilla Flavor, Potassium Sorbate, Sea Salt, Caffeine Powder.
The addition of medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil is fantastic as fats act to moderate the blood sugar response and therefore longevity of the fuel. The inclusion of taurine is beneficial as amino acids act to delay the central nervous system fatigue that so often comes with endurance exercise. The high carbohydrate value is still something to be moderated,so please trial this in training until your have your race plan developed. The best use of VFuel is for the strategic use on race day if your event involves period of high intensity (i.e. attacking a hill, breaking away from a pack, the final 5km of an Ironman.
UPDATE (November 2015): VFuel is available here: bit.ly/tnn_online. Please add postage ($10.50) for delivery.
CNP Hydro Max Gel (Pineapple)
lngredients: Coconut Water (from concentrate), Maltodextrin, Water, Concentrated Pineapple Juice, Concentrated Lemon Juice, Preservative (potassium sorbate), Flavouring, Thickeners (cellulose gum, xanthan gum), Vitamins (vitamin B3, B6, B12).
Verdict: I was initially quite attracted to a gel with a main ingredient of coconut water, as it’s relatively low fructose (~15%) and when combined with glucose (from maltodextrin), is also suitable for those with fructose malabsorption. In addition, coconut water is a good natural source of carbohydrates and provides potassium, an important electrolyte. This gel doesn’t contain salt, which is essential for endurance athletes and in particular, those following a fat adaptation protocol with a higher kidney salt excretion rate. The “flavouring” and “thickeners” are also a concern, but for occasional usage I could turn a blind eye when compared to other products on the market (it’s all about “picking your battles’ right?). Consume with added salt via Himalayan salted water or salt tablets. Available here.
Vega Endurance Gel (Raspberry)
lngredients: Dates, Filtered Water, EnergySource (Grape Juice, Natural Rice Dextrins), Sorghum Malt, Electrolyte Blend (calcium, vitamin C, chloride, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, zinc, copper, selenium, chromium), Coconut Oil, Citric Acid, Natural Raspberry and Strawberry Flavours.
Verdict: Marketed as a plant-based, all-natural energy gel, I do like the inclusion of coconut oil for non-carbohydrate energy, blood sugar control and satiety. The high carbohydrate value however, is predominately from dates, which are a high fructose fruit and best to be minimised. In terms of texture, this gel is also quite thick and needs to be consumed with water, something that is not always practical on race day. Find out more here.
Huma Chia Energy Gel (Mango)
lngredients: Mango Puree, Evaporated Cane Juice, Filtered Water, Brown Rice Syrup, Ground Chia Seeds, Sea salt, Citric Acid.
Verdict: Cane sugar is glucose and fructose in a 1:1 ratio. While the addition of brown rice syrup provides added glucose making this suitable for those with fructose malabsorption, I stand by my decision that athletes (and everyone for that matter) must keep fructose to a minimal. I do like the concept here however, and believe a lower fructose version with a much higher provision of fats (Huma only currently provides 1g of fat per gel) is much closer to the requirement of an endurance athlete. We’re getting there…..
Justin’s Nut Butter (Vanilla)
lngredients: Dry Roasted Almonds, Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Cocoa Butter, Vanilla, Palm Fruit Oil*, Sea Salt.
Verdict: I love the idea of a nut-based gel with 14g of fat, however the goodness here has been down regulated by the addition of cane sugar. I have explained why cane sugar should be avoided above. There is a classic almond butter in this range, but with 3g of carbohydrates and I would only recommend this to very well adapted athletes for use in low intensity situations. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like Justin’s is available in Australia. If you locate some, could you please let me know? Find your local store or shop online here.
YumButter (Peanut Butter YumButterGo)
lngredients: Organic Peanuts, Organic Sunflower Seeds, Organic Chia Seeds, Organic Coconut Palm Sugar (low glycemic), Organic Hemp Seeds, Organic Goji Powder, Organic Lucuma, Love.
Verdict: With 14g of fats and 8g of carbohydrates, organic ingredients and a natural sweetener, at first glance Yum Butter seems ideal. Unfortunately however, coconut palm sugar is still 35-45% fructose. It’s better than sugar, but I still don’t suggest regular use. YumButter is also not strict paleo due to the peanuts (but then again neither is maltodextrin!), but remember legumes should only be a concern if your gut health is sub optimal, which it shouldn’t be. My advise is to use YumButter over most traditional gels, but again, focus on “training low” with fat adaptation principles. A side note: the social message of this company is just fantastic. They partner closely with a non-profit in Guatemala to provide holistic care to malnourished children and their mothers. Find out more here.
Ingredients: Filtered Water, Honey, Royal Jelly (240mg), Citric Acid, Bee Propolis (120mg), Wasp Extract (100mg), Ascorbic Acid.
Verdict: The research states that Vespa allows you to tap into your fat stores and/or exogenous sources more efficiently. You can read more of the science here. Such research is very exciting and I will be trialling this product soon, so please stay tuned for more information. My short term advise to you is to firstly look internally for fat adaptation, rather than for an external quick fix. Unless you are a very well fat adapted endurance athlete and extremely consistent with your nutrition, gut health and recovery strategies, then spending nearly $30 on one 80ml pack (in Australia, where it’s not currently sold directly) is extremely unnecessary.
If you’re going to go down the traditional route, then please keep it as clean as possible. With fat adaptation you shouldn’t need too many, and remember, “what you do most of the time, matters more than what you do every once and a while”.
Hammer (Apple Cinnamon)
lngredients: Maltodextrin, Filtered Water, Apple Juice Concentrate, Energy Smart® (Fruit Juice, Natural Grain Dextrins), Ground Cinnamon, Malic Acid, Vanilla Extract, Potassium Sorbate (as a preservative), Salt, Amino Acids (L-Leucine, L-Alanine, L-Valine, L-Isoleucine), Potassium Chloride.
Verdict: Again, I like the inclusion of the branched chain amino acids to reduce the central nervous system fatigue that often accompanies endurance exercise. Watch you don’t fall for their clever labelling though – apple juice concentrate and fruit juice are fructose, and nothing makes me angrier than companies that lie on their food labels.
Torque (Forest Fruits with Guarana)
lngredients: Maltodextrin (41.5%), Water, Fructose (20.7%), Citric Acid, Natural Guarana Extract, Electrolytes (Sodium Chloride, Potassium Chloride, Calcium Lactate, Magnesium Carbonate), Natural Red Fruits Flavours (Raspberry, Blackcurrant, Blackberry and Blueberry – 0.14%), Preservative (Potassium Sorbate).
Verdict: At least they are honest on the fact that the fructose load is relatively low. The inclusion of salt and additional electrolytes is good, however I would like to see a lower carbohydrate and higher fat macronutrient ratio here.
GU (Caramel Macchiato)
For any other traditional gel, please use the above information to make your decision.
In summary, stick with homemade sports nutrition where possible and make the lowest fructose choice elsewhere. Focus on fat adaptation principles and your fuelling requirement is minimal. Save your fuelling for high intensity situations in training and racing such as attacking a hill, breaking away from a pack or the final 5km of an Ironman.
If you’re not sure where to start, book your initial consultation with me here. I now also offer complimentary 15-minute Skype consultations if you would first like to see if I am the right fit for you. I’d love to help.
Have you already had success with Freedom Fuel? I’d love to hear your feedback. Drop me a line here.
Image credit here.