Sugar Free Fueling

Recently, someone asked “What do you recommended for fueling during the Ridge Run for someone who does not want to take in all the sugary sports drinks and gels.”

Since most sports drinks and fuels are just one form or another of sugar or concentrated carbohydrates, I understand the motivation for this question. Depending if you want to avoid most all carbohydrates or just avoid the processed sugars, I have a various answers and opinions.

Carbohydrate Alternatives to Engineered Sports Sugars

If you are just trying to find an alternative fuel that is not a processed form of sugar or starch there are lots of choices.

Here are some ideas:

  • You can put honey, maple syrup or mashed potatoes in a gel flask.
  • There are real food fruit and or vegetable purees sold in convenient single serving size pouches (similar to single serving gels). Look for them in the baby food section at the grocery store.
  • Dried fruit such as Dates or Pineapples are tasty and pack lots of calories in a small package.

Make sure you experiment and see what works for you. Although engineered sports fuels are highly processed, I’ve found that while racing they are easier to stomach than less processed more real food alternatives.

A quarter century and thousands of miles ago, I was very strict about trying to avoid sugar. Back then, I had a home full of kids and was determined to get them to eat healthy. That meant no junk food, candy, soda or sugar in the house. Promoting a no sugar philosophy, I wanted to practice what I preached and set a good example for my children. My sugar avoidance carried over to running and racing. My first few marathon and longer races probably suffered as a result. Eventually I made peace with using sugary sports drinks during races. This bending of my no sugar rules by using sports drinks such as Gatorade during races led to more success.

Treat Engineered Sports Fuels as Race Fuel not Food.

Treating sports fuels as race only fuels is probably a healthy compromise. Use them during races and only often enough during training to make sure you can stomach it. Consuming sports fuels more often than that, is no better than eating sweets and candy all the time. Just as you wouldn’t use a Nitro based race fuel in your car all the time as it would quickly burn out your engine, eating sugary sports fuels as part of your daily diet is not a healthy practice.

Train Low race High

A fueling philosophy that has worked for me is to reserve the use of sugary sports fuels for races and minimize their use during training. Low carbohydrates during training, high carbohydrates during racing.

Let’s face it, engineered sports fuels work. They are easy to assimilate and convert to usable energy while racing. But outside of racing and a little during training, I don’t consider them food and don’t recommend them being a part of a healthy diet.

What to Do when Avoiding Carbohydrates in General

If you are adhering to a low carb diet and not just avoiding engineered sports carbs, then you are faced with the challenge of fueling and keeping your energy up during races without carbohydrates.

Fat the Preferred Endurance Fuel

For long duration endurance activities, fat is your body’s preferred energy fuel. Fat has a couple benefits as an endurance fuel compared to carbohydrates:

  • Fat has over twice (9 calories per gram) the energy density compared to either Carbohydrates or Proteins (4 calories per gram).
  • Your body hosts significantly more Fat reserves than Carbohydrates.

Fat also has a couple disadvantages as compared to carbohydrates:

  • Dietary fat is extremely slow to digest and assimilate as compared to carbohydrates.
  • The body converts fat into energy at a much slower rate than carbohydrates.

As long as you are willing to keep your race intensity low enough, your body can stay in fat burning mode and should have plenty of fat stores on hand to do the Ridge Run without eating anything during the race. You will not be performing at your full potential, but it can be done.

Consuming whole foods that have a high fat content during the race is fine. Just remember, that they will be harder to stomach than engineered sports fuels. They also may take several hours to digest and get converted into energy by your body. If your Ridge Run projected time is 5 hours or greater, than this is not a problem. For someone that is doing the race under 5 hours, your body may not have enough time to digest and convert food that has a high fat and protein content into energy.

Consuming foods during the race that has a little protein content helps your body avoid the catabolic process of consuming its own muscle. Unfortunately, burning protein as a fuel does produce metabolic waste products that can increase your sense of fatigue. So it is best to avoid high protein fuels during your race.

Train to optimize your ability to utilize stored fat as a fuel.

By doing your endurance training without sports drinks or fuel you can improve your body’s ability to utilize its stored fat reserves for fuel. An untrained person is typically able to tap into 60 grams (540 calories) of stored fat per hour during exercise. An endurance trained athlete can improve this by nearly 50% to 90 grams (810 calories) of stored fat per hour. An endurance trained athlete can also stay in a predominantly fat burning state at a higher workout intensity.

Endurance training raises your Metabolic Efficiency Crossover Point (MEP). MEP is the percentage of your maximum where you start to burn more carbohydrates than fat. Ideally you want your MEP as high as possible. The higher your MEP, the better your body is utilizing its stored fat as fuel. And the less dependent upon carbohydrates (stored glycogen or sports fuels).

Eating Honey and Protein to Improve you Fat Burning? – Probably Not

There are expensive products such as Vespa that is a mix of honey and protein that claim to improve the ability to utilize fat as fuel. But there is no real evidence that they work. The only claims are anecdotal. When personally experimenting with this product, I found no effect. Doing a Metabolic Efficiency Test with and without Vespa would be very easy way to verify the claims for this product. I’ll wait till Vespa does this test with a slew of athletes and verifies their claims before I try Vespa again.

Do Your Own Research and Experimenting

There is enough information about endurance fueling available on the Internet to satisfy anyone’s appetite. Everyone is different and what works well for one may not for another, so experiment and find out what works for you.

Consider the following resources as a good starting point for your quest:

  1. Tim Noakes Author of the Lore of Running and the Real Meal Revolution
  2. Endurance Planet podcasts – Search the listings for fueling
  3. Ben Greenfield Fitness podcasts – Search the listings for fueling
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About Bridger Ridge Run

The Bridger Ridge Run blog is an information portal for all those seeking to learn more about the Bridger Ridge Run event held every second Saturday of August in Bozeman Montana. This blog contains notifications about important registration dates and deadlines, history of the event, training advice and other stories and entertaining tidbits of information about the Bridger Ridge Run.
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2 Responses to Sugar Free Fueling

  1. Anonymous says:

    Key is to limit added sugar during “off season” or times of the year when you are putting in less miles. Reserve gels and sports drinks for the Before, During, and After activity lasting longer than and hour. Practicing using them during training runs. Get 30-60 grams of carb per hour and choose the gels, chews, and drinks that are less processed and using organic ingredients like CLIF SHOT 🙂 I am biased but they are the best.

    • Thanks for your comments and tips.

      Over the last couple years, I have grown fond of CLIF Shot Bloks. They are like big gummy bears.

      I can no longer stomach Gels of any brand or flavor. Gels tend to make my stomach a little sour and right after taking a swig, Gels make me feel woozy. Perhaps being forced to chew Bloks makes them easier on my stomach and less of a shock to my system as they enter slower then Gels.

      Everyone has their unique preferences. Experiment and discover what works best for you.

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