Seven Myths of Endurance Sports Nutrition

The average cyclist knows a lot more about sports nutrition than the average athlete. Even so, cyclists are exposed to a lot of inaccurate sports nutrition information and consequently maintain some unfortunate practices. Some of these myths are remnants of past beliefs that have been overturned by more recent science. Other myths are promoted by companies that market sports nutrition products to endurance athletes. Here are seven such myths and the realities that they obscure.

Myth #1: Only carbohydrate can give me energy while riding.
After 90 minutes of fairly high-intensity exercise, protein contributes as much as 15 percent of the muscles’ energy supply. In the absence of additional protein consumption, this energy comes from the breakdown or “cannibalization” of muscle proteins. The increased breakdown of muscle protein during exercise causes muscle damage and soreness and slows recovery. Consuming protein in a sports drink or energy gel during exercise provides an alternative protein source and thereby reduces the breakdown of muscle protein, enhancing performance in the late stages of long workouts and races and accelerating subsequent recovery.

Myth #2: Sports drinks are not enough.
It is common for cyclists, especially during long rides and races, to consume carbohydrate gels and/or energy bars in addition to a sports drink. The temptation is to really pack in the carbs, knowing that it’s impossible to consume enough to offset depletion. But the average cyclist cannot absorb more than 60 to 80 grams of carbohydrate per hour. You can easily achieve this limit by using a sports drink alone. When sports drinks are combined with gels or bars, the extra carbs get backed up in the stomach and intestine and cramps, bloating, and nausea can result.

Furthermore, a well-formulated sports drink is a 6 to 8 percent carbohydrate solution and is absorbed into the bloodstream faster than anything more concentrated. When you mix such a drink with gels or bars, you greatly increase the carbohydrate concentration of your stomach contents and thereby slow the delivery of this vital fuel to your working muscles. Sports drinks are enough.

Myth #3: I should eat and drink for sustained energy while riding.
Most cyclists are aware that certain carbohydrates are absorbed more slowly than others, and therefore provide energy for a longer period of time. Many cyclists believe that such long-lasting carbohydrates must be better for endurance than fast-acting sugars, and manufacturers of ergogenic aids often promote this myth. The reality is that, because it is impossible to absorb any kind of carbohydrate as fast as your body burns it while cycling, you need to take in energy fuels that get delivered to your muscles quickly, not slowly.

A perfect example is galactose, which is touted by one sports drink maker as a “revolutionary” carbohydrate to aid in athletic performance. Galactose is a sugar derived from lactose that is found in milk. The drink manufacturer shows data in their advertising suggesting that blood glucose levels stay elevated longer when galactose is consumed as the main carbohydrate in a sports drink.

The implication is that elevated glucose levels lead to better endurance performance, but precisely the opposite is true. Galactose is associated with high levels of blood glucose because it is metabolized slowly – too slowly to effectively slow glycogen depletion, which is what a sports drink is supposed to do. One clinical study showed that the metabolism rate of orally ingested galactose is about 50% slower than that of a comparable amount of glucose during 120 minutes of exercise.

Myth #4: Protein is for weightlifters.
Because cyclists routinely damage and destroy muscle proteins in workouts and races, their protein intake level needs to be as high as strength and power athletes’. It is especially important to consume protein immediately following workouts in order to maximize muscle protein rebuilding. The muscles are able to build proteins two to three times faster in the first hour after a workout than they can at any other time.

As a general rule, within the first two hours after a workout, you should try to consume between 10 and 20 percent of your daily protein intake. The lesser amount will suffice after a lighter workout, whereas you’ll need the greater amount after a hard or long workout. In addition, consume about 4 grams of carbohydrate for each gram of protein. The carbohydrate is needed for glycogen replenishment and it also stimulates a stronger insulin response, which results in faster delivery of protein to the muscles.

Research has shown that consuming carbohydrate and protein together within an hour of completing exercise results in faster muscle glycogen replenishment and faster muscle protein rebuilding than when carbohydrate is taken alone, or when both are taken more than an hour after exercise. In one study, a carbohydrate-protein recovery drink decreased post-exercise muscle damage, increased post-exercise muscle glycogen synthesis, and extended next-workout endurance significantly more than a sports drink containing carbohydrate and no protein.

Myth #5: All sports drinks are the same.
While most sports drinks are similar, the differences are crucial. You will be well served to choose your sports drink carefully rather than using whatever’s cheapest, most available, or well hyped. For example, as mentioned, a sports drink should contain 6 to 8 percent carbohydrate; but some sports drinks contain as little as 2 percent. Fructose should not be the primary carbohydrate in a sports drink, because too much fructose can cause gastrointestinal distress. Yet it is indeed the main sugar in some sports drinks.

A sports drink should contain antioxidant vitamins C and E to reduce the amount of free radical damage to muscle tissues that occurs during exercise, yet many sports drinks do not have them.

A sports drink should contain three electrolyte minerals – sodium, potassium, and magnesium – but several sports drinks do not contain the last of these. And finally, there’s growing evidence that protein (in the right amount) should be considered an essential ingredient in sports drinks, as it has been proven to accelerate the delivery of carbohydrate to working muscles and thereby spare more muscle glycogen and prolong endurance. The great majority of sports drinks contain no protein.

Myth #6: Rest, not nutrition, is the key to muscle recovery.
Rest is essential for muscle recovery, but it’s virtually useless without proper nutrition. After workouts, the body is dehydrated, glycogen depleted, and in a state of protein deficit. The sooner after each workout you take measures to rehydrate, replenish muscle glycogen stores, and rebuild muscle proteins, the faster you will recover and the better you will perform in your next workout. This is because the body is primed to sponge up the nutrients it needs for recovery in the first hour following exercise. So a cyclist who takes in the right amount of water, electrolytes, carbohydrate and protein immediately after training will recover much faster and more completely than a cyclist who takes in the same nutrients in the same amounts a couple of hours later.

The fastest and most convenient way to satisfy your body’s nutritional needs after exercise is to use a sports drink formulated especially for recovery. Such a drink should contain roughly 4 grams of carbohydrate per ounce (about twice the concentration of a regular sports drink) and 1 gram of protein for every 4 grams of carbohydrate.

Myth #7: If it’s good for me at rest, it’s good for me during exercise.
In a sports drink, any ingredient besides water, electrolytes, carbohydrate, protein, and antioxidant vitamins can provide no relevant benefits and will be more likely to do harm by slowing digestion.

“Marketing ingredients” are ingredients that are boasted about on sports drinks labels because they have a reputation for healthful effects, but which actually have no effect on performance but are included in amounts too small to have any physiological effect. Ribose, creatine, ginseng, Co-Q10, and carnitine are just some of the ingredients added to drinks in such small amounts that really have no physiological effects. For example, one sports drink contains about 2 mg of Co-Q10, a coenzyme that has never been shown to improve athletic performance, and even if you take it for health reasons (it’s an antioxidant), it needs to be consumed in amounts ranging from 30 to 100 mg.

by: Edmund Burke, Ph.D.

Copyright © Ahmedabad Bicycling Club 2014