Friday, July 18, 2014

Highlighting sports nutrition

As a man of science, I believe in using all available research to gain an edge at sports. In fact, I consider it the trump card of my training, and perhaps the reason behind why I was able to improve so much at running over the past few years. It goes without saying that any tools developed for the purpose of improving performance must be safe, legal and have a scientifically proven effect.

One aspect of running for which there is ample evidence of their benefit in training and competition is sports nutrition. Its breakthrough in popular running culture came in the form of carbohydrate gels, produced by companies such as Clif, GU, Hammer, Powerbar and others. Their low weight and volume provided increased portability while their gel-like consistency improved tolerability as compared to the classic energy or snack bar.

Now, as sports supplements have become more widely used, the notion that fueling is important is generally well accepted. However, with many athletes -- beginners and elites alike -- I've noticed that there is not enough attention to detail when it comes to this topic. In this post, I will be discussing products that I recommend using immediately before, during or after a run. For full disclosure, I would like to add that I am sponsored by Hammer, and they provide me with discounts on their products.

Hammer HEED

This is an electrolyte and carbohydrate powder, ready for drinking once its mixed with water. I use this constantly, usually immediately prior to and during training. There is strong research backing the importance of carbohydrate consumption around hard sessions, and I feel they improve the quality of my workouts by allowing me to perform at a higher level.

In contrast to Gatorade, which everyone is doubtlessly familiar with, HEED consists mostly of maltodextrin, the same sugar found in GU gels. Having previously fueled with GU, I learned to tolerate this sugar exceptionally. In contrast, Gatorade never worked as well for me, a fact I attribute primarily to its sucrose content (sucrose is a disaccharide made up of glucose and fructose). In the gut epithelial lining, sucrose is broken down into its two components, and thus people sensitive to fructose tend to not tolerate this sugar as well. Maltodextrin, on the other hand, is a glucose oligomer and does not contain any fructose.

Another benefit of HEED is that despite a similar carb content, its taste is much less sweet than that of the competition. The first time trying it I found this kind of odd, expecting a sports drink to be super sweet by definition. However, when you're on your second or third bottle of the stuff, a milder taste is very much appreciated!

Hammer Recoverite

This is basically HEED with added whey protein, offering a ratio of 4:1 of carbs to protein, which is the magic formula for optimum post-workout recovery. I carry it in a blender bottle and add water when ready, it tastes pretty great and I can strongly recommend the vanilla and chocolate flavors.

The benefit of this and other recovery drinks is that you can begin refueling instantly after a workout. This is vital since the first 30 min following conclusion of a session are window for glycogen loading, in which nearly all carbohydrates consumed are used to replenish the just depleted glycogen stores. If you are planning on back-to-back workouts (i.e. doubles, or an evening run followed by a morning run), or are in week of heavy training, maintaining topped-off glycogen stores is a top priority to be able to sustain performance, and continue training at the same level, with the same quality.

Hammer Gels

The product that originally attracted me to Hammer was introduced to me by Bremen, who swore by the Montana Huckleberry flavor. I find their fruity gels (made of real fruit) especially tasty compared to the competition, many of which use overpowering artificial flavors. For chocolate, I do prefer to stick with GU's Chocolate Outrage, as nothing beats the Belgian chocolate in their recipe. Nonetheless, if you like GU, you'll love Hammer, they are very similar products, and Hammer tends be a little better digestible. Since a few weeks, they've updated their gel bags to be less cumbersome to carry, and they now resemble the smaller GU bags.

From left to right: Hammer Gel, Recoverite and HEED.

The case for carb drinks

I'm a believer in adequate fueling for optimal running. In fact, at both big races last Spring, the half in Wilmington and the full in Vienna, I ran with a 20 oz water bottle containing 7% HEED. At Vienna, my dad handed me a second bottle at the halfway point. "Why bother carrying all the water?", you may ask. And yes, it's a pain and 20 oz feels insanely heavy 13 miles into a race.

But consider how much water you need to drink with a single gel. 1 pack weighs roughly an ounce, most of which is carbs. The optimal concentration of carbs for maximal absorption during hard efforts is 6-8%, but let's go with 10% to simplify the math. Thus, you should ideally drink 10 oz of water per pack of gel! There is no way in the world that any of us can gulp that much in an hour at water stops alone without losing time, even if we were to hit them all up along the way. Personally, I would say that the most I can drink running through water stops is 6-8 oz per hour, and if I were to consume 2 gels per hour -- which is the current recommendation -- that would leave me with a fluid deficit of 12-14 oz. The problem with not hydrating properly after consuming gels is that water is drawn from your circulation into the gut to dilute the concentrated carbs contained in the gel. Less water in your circulation, less blood volume, poorer oxygen transport, with the end result equaling poorer running performance. Of course, carrying a 20 oz bottle also incurs an economy penalty, so it's a double-edged sword.

In conclusion, and especially so in the summer heat and humidity of Baltimore, runners should re-examine their nutritional plans not only at upcoming races, but also during training units of mid to hard effort. Learning to use optimal nutrition to your advantage could result in sustaining your goal-pace for a few miles longer at your next race, completing the penultimate interval in your speed workout with the same split as the first or running doubles with a morning workout of the same high-quality as the evening!

If you're interested in trying out any Hammer products, it's best to buy directly from their website, where they offer frequent promotions as well a free shipping. If you do decide to order, make sure to use this link: http://www.hammernutrition.com/affiliates/?customerid=226985 - you'll receive a 15% discount on your first order, and there's a higher chance they'll sponsor me again next year!