Alternative energy options


Andy Magness an adventurer and endurance junkie investigates alternative energy options for training and racing.

Are you a triathlete?  A marathoner, or maybe even--oooohhh--an ultramarathoner?  What about adventure racing (my favorite), ever done one of those?  Awesome.  You’re just who I want to talk to so listen up: I’m going to save you money.

First, let’s do some math.  A general nutritional ‘rule of thumb’ in the racing world suggests consuming approximately one ‘energy gel’ roughly every 45 minutes.  For the average marathoner, this equates to between four and five gels.  An Iron Distance triathlete will be expected to consume well more than a dozen. Run a 100 miler and conventional wisdom will have you reaching for the equivalent of 30 or more gels.  Considering that the retail price tag of a typical gel, which offers up 100 calories of ‘a scientifically developed combination of different carbohydrates’ perfectly blended carbohydrates, is somewhere between 2 and 3 dollars and the cost of running that race has just gone up quite a bit.  And of course, you’d never want to flaunt the party line of making sure you’ve thoroughly tested anything that passes your lips during your big effort, right?  All this adds up so that even a single racer in a marathon can be spending upwards more than $50 in energy gels alone. Don’t get me started on the various blocks, wafers, and myriad of other options that are marketed as race food. Needless to say, it’s no wonder that given the present popularity of endurance racing and the mainstreaming of the marathon distance that companies like PowerBar are reporting annual revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Photo - supplied

But maybe it is time to stop wasting your money. 

I know, I know--you’re already thinking of all the reasons why you’re not.  Reasons why the gels and bloks (what’s so cool about bad spelling anyway?) and all their little friends are actually critical parts of your successful race day.  Reasons why you need to make that last minute trip to the sporting goods store in tomorrow’s running kit with your race number conveniently peeking out from your pocket or perhaps already attached (you like to plan ahead after all!) and casually mention how your stash was a bit low and with the big race tomorrow…

All fun poking aside, really--seriously, stop wasting your money. 

It isn’t that energy gels don’t do what they say they do.  There is plenty of documentation and research to show that endurance is improved with the ingestion of the right level of simple carbohydrate (glucose) along with water, which is, surprise surprise, about 100 calories worth every 45 minutes, give or take.There are also a large number of studies that compare glucose supplementation alone vs. glucose plus fructose.  Although better than half of these studies seem to indicate that in fact the latter option does allow for greater exogenous carbohydrate oxidation (do you even know what that is?!), it is not quite the open and shut case most gel peddlers will have you believe. The problem, rathter, is that energy gels are just a really, REALLY expensive way buy sugar. 

Energy gel companies, of course, won’t tell you this. They will, however, offer up plenty of links to the scientific studies that seem to ‘prove’ the efficacy of what they are selling you--full on research reports with mathematical equations and p-values (do you even know what those are?!)  Most of us, even those really keen to see for ourselves, will simply take a glance at something with so many numbers and symbols before deciding we’ve done our due diligence and start shelling out the cash for those little packets of paste. Yes, there is plenty of science behind carbohydrate supplementation during endurance effort.  Unfortunately, essentially ZERO of that science supports the conclusion that expensive brand X is the way to go.  Here is a summary of what we know, what we kind of know, and what we don’t know at all.

What we know: Ingestion of carbohydrates improves endurance performance, period.  The generally accepted reason for this is that by ingesting carbohydrates during exercise, we increase the amount of available CHO in our bloodstream (called exogenous CHO, as opposed to endogenous CHO, which is in the body as glycogen).  The more we are able to rely on exogenous sources of CHO to supplement glycogen, the longer we can utilize carbohydrate as a primary fuel source and perform at a certain level .  We can’t just shovel down the gels though--our intake of useful carbohydrates during exercise is limited by the rate our body can absorb them. We know all this because exogenous sources of CHO can be ‘labeled’ with tracer chemicals which, when the body uses these carbs for energy, produces a certain by-product which we can detect. For most people, ingesting more than about 100 calories of simple sugar every 45 minutes or so doesn’t increase the amount of exogenous CHO that is used as fuel.

What we kind of know: Different sources of carbohydrates have been tested to see which source works best.  It turns out that most of the research has been done comparing a combination of Fructose and Glucose is to Glucose alone. This hypothesis is that because the metabolic pathways by which these two sugars are processed are different--when your body has maximized its ability to utilize exogenous glucose, it can simultaneously be preparing fructose for conversion to energy. While many studies have found that  combining carbohydrates allows for greater utilization of exogenous carbohydrate over a single source, others have not found a significant difference.  I for one, however, am tentatively convinced of this benefit--a lions share of the research in support of a conclusion plus a plausible explanation for it in terms of underlying mechanisms is enough evidence for me to act on information.

What we don’t know: The jury is still out on whether any of the other vast and varied types of  additives to commercially available CHO sources do anything at all in terms of endurance performance.  This includes things like amino acids, vitamins and minerals, extracts, etc. Sure, caffeine is a stimulant and there is plenty of research into its effect on endurance performance (and just about every other kind of performance) out there for those that go looking.  These effects are typically overstated by those peddling caffeinated products, of course, but what is clear is that the athletic advantages of caffeine only extend to individuals who aren’t habituated to the drug (i.e. don’t have my coffee habit).  For folks like me, the caffeine in a gel won’t do squat once  we’ve had our morning cup.  And if we haven’t then at best we’ll prevent a pounding headache later in the day.  Either way, getting a fix through gels is neither very economical nor very tasty. 

In summary, easily digestible (readily bio-available) CHO consumed during exercise can increase performance without a doubt.  It even looks pretty likley that a combined of glucose and fructose source is the best bet.  Specifically, a 2:1 ratio (Glu to Fru) pops up in the scientific literature as the optimum ratio--although my cursory research review doesn’t find very many studies that seemed to test this ratio against others so who knows how reliable this is.  Regardless, lets assume that 2:1 is the magic number.

Now before you think this means that gels are back on the table, consider the fact that Sucrose, or common table sugar, is already a combined source of CHO--half glucose and half fructose.  Honey, nature’s sweetener is similarly composed of glucose and fructose as well as a few other sugars, one of the main differences being that honey also contains other trace elements such as amino acids and some vitamins and minerals, and that in honey the glucose and fructose aren’t chemically hooked together as they are in sucrose.  The efficacy of honey as a natural source of combined CHO is so great that some energy gels (ever heard of Honey Stinger?) are made of 80% honey! 

So there you go.  There are no actual (scientifically proven) advantages to using an expensive energy gel over using something comparable that you can throw together in your kitchen for pennies.  If you’re really hard up you can get your honey for free (I hear KFC is a good source, and StarBucks coffee has some convenient packets too), and massive bottles of corn syrup (pure glucose) are readily available at any grocery store. If you’re looking for something a bit tastier then check out the lolly aisle. Revel in the glorious possibilities* and, more importantly, the savings.  You’re welcome.

*I will personally vouch for the HomeBrand party mix--20 gels worth of carbohydrate in a variety of fun shapes and consistencies from neon green airplanes to worms to marshmallowy, melt-in-your mouth lime and lemon confections. And no, I’m not on their payroll yet, but have sent them a copy of this article along with a request for a lifetime supply of lollies. Fingers crossed.

Byline:  Andy Magness is an adventurer and endurance junkie who has recently relocated from North Dakota to Te Anau with his wife and two kids.  He is the author of UltraMental: an unconventional approach to training for endurance events on two hours a week (or less)  and suggests that if the wisdom in this article saves you heaps of money, you use $4--two gels worth--to buy his book and learn how to save heaps of time, too.