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Fueling for Endurance Sport: 5 Whole Food Alternatives

By Brooke Schohl

whole foodsThe use of sports nutrition products runs rampant among endurance athletes. These manufactured foods are quick to digest, compact and boast improved performance and refueling capabilities during training and racing. The question is: Are there natural, whole foods that also accomplish this same task as efficiently?

A plethora of ergogenic aids (substances used for the purpose of enhancing performance) are available to endurance athletes including sports drinks, chews, beans, bars, powders, tablets and waffles. These items contain specialized sugar composition (quickly digestible for immediate use), electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, and antioxidants. Sport products have one mission: to refuel and rehydrate athletes, and in turn lead to improved endurance and performance.

Whole foods are those that have naturally occurring sugar sources, minimal ingredients and often electrolytes. Here are five excellent whole food/beverage alternatives to traditionally used sport products:

  1. Coconut water has exploded onto the marketplace recently as a natural way to rehydrate and replace lost electrolytes. This drink is equipped with potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus, as well as B vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes and antioxidants. It provides energy in the form of carbohydrates. What it doesn’t have are artificial flavors, sweeteners and colors. Most importantly, it is comprised of exactly one ingredient — coconut water. In 2012, the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found coconut water to be as effective as a carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drink in promoting rehydration and supporting subsequent exercise.

  2. Dried fruit provides a chewy snack complete with a natural sugar source and the added benefit of vitamins and minerals. In 2012, the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition also found that both raisins and sports chews demonstrated improved running performance, with no significant differences in gastrointestinal distress reported among subjects. In a raisin versus gel showdown, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research discovered no metabolic or performance differences between the tested food items. 

  3. Baby food puree offers carbs, vitamins and minerals in a convenient twist-top pouch (Earth’s Best brand) similar to a gel. The ingredient list is short and there are no added sugars. Flavor options include sweet potato apple and orange banana. Electrolytes should be supplemented with this item when necessary.

  4. Bananas are a miracle food for athletes. Calorie-dense, packed with potassium and loaded with easily digestible sugars, this old favorite stands up to its reputation. PLOS ONE recently found cyclists to have comparable performance when fueling with bananas or sports drinks. They are also easy to carry.

  5. Homemade bars and snacks are a great way to control the ingredients going into your training fuel. Check out sport-specific cookbooks such as “Feed Zone Portables” by Biju Thomas and Allen Lim, which offers plenty of compact, whole food recipes complete with all of the energy perks of packaged sports products. Get creative with post-workout shakes — blend your own concoction by using nutrient-dense ingredients such as fruit, greens, coconut oil, almond milk, flaxseed and spice extracts. Keep the flavor and recovery benefits … ditch the preservatives!

Remember, you call the shots when it comes to your nutrition. Trial and error is important in determining what types of fuel work best for you. Keep in mind that while the sports product market is abundant, there are lots of natural options to keep you well-fueled on the race course and performing at your highest level.

Brooke Schohl, MS, RD, is a registered sports dietitian and the owner of Fuel to the Finish Endurance Nutrition Coaching in Scottsdale, Ariz. She is an avid triathlete and has completed three Ironman-distance races and multiple 70.3s. She integrates that personal experience and knowledge into developing customized, sport-specific fueling plans for her clients. Brooke and her husband, John, also own two triathlon stores in Scottsdale.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.