Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Health Implications of Chronic Sugar Consumption Among Endurance Athletes

In endurance sports, sugar-based nutrition products reign supreme. Take a look at the ingredients of any sports drink, gel, or energy bar on the market. The chance it contains sugar as a primary ingredient is pretty high. 

It's because of demand, right?


Conventional approaches to sports nutrition do revolve around high consumption of carbohydrate, and simple sugars, especially immediately before, during and after hard training sessions and racing. Just the other day, for example, I had breakfast with a fellow triathlete and coach, whose plate was filled with pancakes slathered in maple syrup. He took down the entire thing.

From a purely performance standpoint, there is some evidence supporting a predominantly carbohydrate diet/fueling strategy, particularly at higher intensities. But, more and more research on lipolysis and "fat adaptation" among endurance athletes is showing simple sugars and carbohydrates shouldn't be the primary fuel source, it should be fat. 

Research continues to also pour in showing the long term health implications of chronic sugar consumption. The basic point is this: consuming lots of sugar accelerates the aging process, possibly just as much as smoking. (For example, read this article.)

But, back to endurance athletes. There isn't a ton of research available specifically on this population, but a few studies have emerged. One from earlier this year, I think, is indicative of the caution we, in the endurance sports community, should be taking with an over reliance on sugar-based nutrition.  

The study compared 35 triathletes with 35 non-exercising control individuals. It found an increased risk of dental erosion among triathletes, and a significant correlation between dental caries and cumulative weekly training volume. Basically, a higher prevalence of dental caries was seen among triathletes with higher training loads, presumably due to the larger amounts of mostly sugar-based exogenous fuel sources.

In trying to limit simple sugar consumption during training and racing I take three basic approaches:

1. Don't carry fuel for 90-95% of my workouts. Because I've adapted my metabolism over time to better tap into fat stores, I can easily go for a 2 hour run or a 3 hour bike ride with just water and be perfectly fine. Daily nutrition influences performance.

2.  If I'm in need of a clean fuel source, like during a marathon, I use UCAN Superstarch. It's been my go-to for almost two years, and I don't plan on changing that any time soon.

3. When possible, though, I'm a fan of using whole food sources of nutrition. This is what I did earlier this year during a 16-hour, 300k bike ride through northern New Jersey. I carried plastic bags filled with coconut flakes, coconut oil, almonds, cashews and flax seed crackers. More resources, like the Feed Zone Portables Cookbook, are available to make this approach easier too. I'm looking forward to experimenting more with this in the coming year.

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