Get Your Carbs Here

There are more ways than ever to fuel up on the
run. Time for a user’s guide to drinks, gels, bars, and nature’s own sports

by: Liz Applegate Ph.D.


On a recent flight
New York
, I met an
impressive athlete. Nope, it wasn’t a New York Yankee. It was the head flight
attendant, Cindy. Despite her international travel schedule, Cindy is an
ultrarunner who logs more than 70 miles per week. To stay
properly fueled for her taxing job and grueling running schedule, Cindy downs
sports drinks, carbohydrate gels, and energy bars as part of her daily fare. And
they help. That’s because they’ve been specially formulated by some very smart,
sports-minded people to meet the nutritional (and convenience) needs of people
on the go. Whether you run 70 miles per week like Cindy does, or closer to 10,
sports-nutrition products, when used wisely, fuel your body for optimal
performance. Here’s what you need to know.

Running on “E
like a car, the
human body can’t run on empty. Running performance is limited by four fueling


  1. Loss of body fluids. Losing more
    than 2 percent of your weight as sweat during a run can hamper your performance.
    In a nutshell, dehydration hurts your running, because it thickens the blood,
    decreases the heart’s efficiency, increases heart rate, and raises body
  2. Drop in blood sugar levels. Your
    brain relies heavily on a steady supply of sugar (glucose) for fuel. Running
    drains your blood glucose stores, which eventually gives you that lightheaded,
    woozy feeling.
  3. Depletion of muscle carbohydrate
    stores. Your muscles also suck up stored glucose (glycogen) as fuel. Depending
    on the intensity and distance of your run, you’ll deplete your glycogen stores
    in as little as 60 minutes. Once this happens, you get that lead-like feeling in
    your legs.
  4. Altered amino acid levels.
    Researchers also believe there is a chemical component to fatigue. For example,
    levels of circulating amino acids have been shown to change during endurance
    exercise. And research shows that endurance may be improved with specially
    formulated foods or beverages that modify amino acid levels and, in a sense,
    keep your brain thinking you’re not tired.

er Up
, it’s never been
easier to fuel up properly before and during a run thanks to all the sports
foods and drinks available today. Just keep in mind that you need to take in 20
to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour of exercise (the longer and harder you
exercise, the more you need). Here’s a rundown of the different fueling options
and how to use each for the best results.

Sports drinks:
With their mix of water and carbohydrates, sports drinks are an excellent
on-the-run source of fuel. For exercise lasting anywhere from 60 minutes to
several hours, they significantly boost your endurance compared with quaffing
plain water.

Most sports drinks offer a
blend of carbohydrates such as the sugars sucrose, glucose, fructose, and
galactose. A few beverages also add maltodextrin, a complex carbohydrate made of several
different glucose units. New research suggests that the body can absorb more
carbohydrates from sports drinks that offer a blend than from drinks that
contain a single carbohydrate source. The researchers believe this is because
the various sugars combined in these drinks can be absorbed via different

Sports drinks also come with added
electrolytes (the vital minerals we lose when we sweat). Sodium is the most
important of these, as studies show that drinks with added sodium help maintain
fluid balance in the body and also promote the uptake of fluid in your
intestines. In plain English: You stay better hydrated when you drink beverages
that contain sodium.

For optimum fueling: Stick with sports
drinks that contain 13 to 19 grams of carbohydrate per 8 ounces. Drinks with
carb concentrations hamper fluid absorption,
and will give you that sloshing feeling in your stomach. Drinks with lower carb concentrations won’t refuel your muscles fast enough.

Aim to drink 11/2 to 4 cups of sports
drink per hour of exercise (the bigger you are and the faster you run, the more
you need) to get both the fluid and carbohydrates required for endurance.

Carbohydrates don’t get any more convenient than this. Gels
come in small, single-serve plastic packets that can fit in that tiny key pocket
in most running shorts. (Go ahead and try that with a sports drink. Actually,
you better not.)

Gels contain mainly
sugars and
maltodextrins, which make them similar to
sports drinks without the water. Some newer gels, such as e-Gel, also come with
added electrolytes. There are also gels with extras such as ginseng and other
herbs, amino acids, vitamins, and Coenzyme Q10 (a non-essential substance found
in the body).

Caffeine is also in some
gels. Check the label or consult the manufacturer’s Web site for specific
amounts as some gels contain as much caffeine as a half-cup of coffee. This
won’t be a problem if you normally use products with caffeine, but it can cause
nervousness in folks not accustomed to it.

If you’re a fan of honey–nature’s original carbohydrate
gel–but not into fitting that little plastic bear in your running shorts, check
out Honey Stinger gel packs. Research by Richard
Kreider, Ph.D., of
University in
Texas, suggests that
honey boosts endurance just as well as the high-tech
carb gels.

optimum fueling:
Most carbohydrate
gels contain about 100 calories and 25 grams of carbohydrate. Depending on the
intensity and duration of your run, you take in one to three gels for every hour
you’re out there. Remember to wash each down with ample water.

Energy bars: With
all the new bars on the market, you might need to eat one for some quick energy
before you try to figure out which is best for you. Given all the versions,
including women-only, high-protein, and meal-replacement bars, try to read
labels carefully if you want to fuel up properly.

The standard high-carbohydrate bars, such as PowerBar and Clif Bar, are great
for fueling both before and during a run because, as with sports drinks and
gels, they facilitate a rapid release of carbohydrate into the blood stream.
About 70 percent of their carbohydrate calories come from sugars (brown-rice
syrup and sucrose) and grains (oats and rice crisps). Some bars also contain
fruit, which is another source of easily digestible carbohydrates for your
working muscles.

For optimum fueling: The best bars for
before and during a run contain about 25 grams of carbohydrate and less than 15
grams of protein, which is not a crucial fuel source during exercise. Also,
check the label for fat content. Some bars can pack a hefty fat dose, which will
slow your digestion. Eat one bar about an hour before a run. If you’re running
for more than an hour, eat one high-
carb bar per hour
of running, along with ample water.

Fruit: While
prepackaged, specially-formulated sports foods and drinks are a great way to
stay properly fueled for your runs, you can go au
naturel if you prefer. Fruit, whether dried or fresh, is
easily digestible and supplies a good shot of carbohydrate. And dried fruit is
simple to transport (dried banana chips are indestructible compared with the
real thing).

Many runners avoid eating
fruit before or during a run because they fear it will cause gastrointestinal
upset thanks to its fiber content. Recent research should put those fears to

As part of a
University study performed by
nutritionist Kristine Clark, Ph.D., R.D., dried plums (a.k.a. prunes) were given
to participants 30 minutes before a 3-mile run. Compared with eating an energy
bar before the run, participants reported no difference in intestinal discomfort
with dried plums, and also claimed to have increased energy levels after eating
the dried plums.

For optimum
Most fruit provides about 15 grams of carbohydrate per
serving, which for fresh fruit is about the size of a tennis ball. For dried
fruit, a serving is equal to about 1/4 cup. Aim for one to two servings of fruit
before a workout and one to two servings during every hour of running. Drink
plenty of water to wash it all down.


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