Training & Racing With Whole Foods

As athletes, most of us try to avoid junk food in our daily diets. No processed foods, no crappy fake sugars, just real, whole foods. But then on race day, or during long workouts, all that ends for so many of us. We are fueled by gels, sports drinks, and bars with ingredient lists longer than our workouts. This method might work (or appear to work for some), but for a lot of us, it just doesn't seem to fit into our overall healthy lifestyle. Nevermind the fact that most of those things taste like crap and we are forced to choke them down and carry on. 

There has to be a better way. Are there whole-foods alternatives that measure up convenience of these highly processed options?

One study compared a 6% carbohydrate sports drink to whole bananas eaten by cyclists over the course of a 75K time trial. The results showed that there was no difference in performance or recovery between the two groups. But carrying bananas around in your pocket on race day? Not exactly practical.

The other problem highly processed sports nutrition products is that they can actually hinder your performance rather than improve it. Because of their highly concentrated nature, sports gels are around 200-400% carbohydrate solution by volume. You ideally want to be around 6% carbohydrate solution. These sorts of highly concentrated products can also slow down your digestion, which is not what you want on race day.

If we are paying such close attention to what we eat on a daily basis, and how it affects our performance, why are we not also doing this on race day? 

Making this switch is sometimes like trying to write with the wrong hand, you need to train your body to adapt to it's new source of fuel. Here are some simple tips for swapping your processed products for whole-foods options while training and racing. You might need to try several options before you find something that works well for you. 

  • Instead of gels try a half a cup of mashed banana with a splash of lemon juice and just enough water to make it squeeze through a gel flask. Half a cup of banana has the equivalent calories and carbs of a Gu gel.
  • Instead of chews try dried pineapple. Two pieces have more calories and carbs than two blocks.
  • Instead of bars a blend of almonds and dried berries for a flavorful, calorie-rich snack perfect for long bike rides. You can add coconut oil to make balls that will easily fit in a bento box.
  • Instead of sports drinks mix coconut water (high in electrolytes) with cherry juice (high in sugar and vitamins) for a cocktail that doesn’t taste bad, even when hot. 

Other ideas that might work are baked sweet potato, rice balls (the Feed Zone Portables cookbook is a great resource for these), or dates. 

There are a few sports drink products out there that are made from real ingredients if you still want the convenience of a powder. My favorite is Skratch (and my favorite flavor is pineapple). It has the right amount of carbs (from two different sources), tastes good, and is made of stuff you can pronounce!

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