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Finding the best sports nutrition is an enduring pain

Finding the best sports nutrition is an enduring pain

I had an inkling this would happen when I participated in my first real group bike ride last summer: I am officially obsessed with road cycling.

Apart from the smooth sensation of bike riding (many physical therapists recommend it if you suffer from knee pain), I enjoy the pure physicality of the sport. Cycling in Colorado is difficult—both the mountains and the altitude render it extraordinarily strenuous. This July, along with a handful of similarly bike-crazed friends I’ll be riding in the fabulously named Triple Bypass —120 miles and 10,000 feet of elevation gain. Gulp, let the training begin.

After a particularly arduous ride this past weekend, a ride that left me completely spent, I realized the paucity of my endurance nutrition knowledge. What types of foods are really the best to eat while cycling? What kinds of foods should I avoid? Must I choose products that are specifically labeled for sports nutrition? In a world full of perpetual options and information, I’m still perplexed. What am I supposed to eat?

Sports nutrition strides

I’m not alone in my quest for the ultimate fitness nutrition: A recent report by Global Industry Analysts revealed that sports nutrition food and drink sales are projected to reach $55 billion by 2018. Given the meteoric strides in race participation like Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, IronMans, marathons and triathlons, it’s safe to assume that the majority of sports nutrition users aren’t professional athletes, but fit, active people hoping to stay that way.

Skeptics of fitness nutrition products say that gels, electrolyte powders and caffeine-filled gummies specifically designed for endurance fitness are frivolous. Indeed, if someone went on a 20 minute run, they don’t necessarily need a sugar-filled gel pack to refuel during that time. Assuming they’ve recently eaten carbohydrates during the day, they should have enough glycogen (a form of glucose) stored in their muscles to get them through a relatively short workout. But muscles have a finite amount of space to house glycogen. If you have a grueling, multi-hour bike ride ahead of you, muscles will rapidly deplete these stores and will start burning fat instead—a horrible feeling dubbed “hitting the wall” or “bonking."

What should an ideal sports nutrition product designed to be consumed while exercising be comprised of?

First and foremost, it needs simple carbohydrates like sugar. Sugar is easily digestible and can quickly be used as energy without digestive upset. It also needs electrolytes like sodium and potassium—you know, Gatorade style, except without artificial colors and a dreadful taste. Hard-to-digest protein should be avoided until after you finish exercise, and fat and fiber will just slow down sugar from reaching the bloodstream (usually a positive attribute).

Rooting around

I began my quest for the perfect endurance snack in the offices. I discovered gels with organic ingredients; vitamin- and mineral-infused gummies; and sophisticated electrolyte powders. And then I came across a stockpile of fruit and vegetable pouches. Shaped like a classic Capri Sun juice, pouches were huge at Expo West 2013 in Anaheim, Calif.—for both kids and adults. One brand, Smooch, contains banana, pineapple, mango, chia seed, acerola, and a dash of lemon juice—18 grams sugar with 100 calories. Plus, it’s in a handy, re-sealable packet, perfectly sized to fit in the pocket of my bike shirt. Was this the rogue sports nutrition product I’d been seeking?

Maybe it’s because sports nutrition is on my mind, but it seems like companies are continuously launching new endurance products. A few that I’m psyched to try: ProBar’s BOLT, energy chews containing USDA organic yerba mate, B vitamins, tapioca and agave; and PowerICE, a freezable, electrolyte-packed ice pop reminiscent of those nasty Fla-Vor-Ice Pops that cost 10 cents (and according to this commercial make delightful juggling props), although I wish they were organic. And I’m enamored with Honey Stinger’s delicious organic waffles and Clif's 95 percent organic shot blocks.

Are there any awesome new endurance-sport product launches out there that I should know about? Let me know in the comments below, or tweet me at @jennablumenfeld.

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