2 x raw eggs 2 x shots of brandy 

1 x dash of strychnine. 

This isn’t what you’d need to make the latest hipster cocktail. 

Believe it or not, it’s what Gold-medallist Thomas Hicks took in during the latter stages of the rather eventful Men’s Olympic Marathon in 1904. Hicks was technically the second man to cross the finish line, but the chap who finished ahead of him was later disqualified for jumping in a car for a section of the course.

Given that strychnine is a highly toxic chemical used as a pesticide, it’s perhaps no wonder that Hicks collapsed shortly after he finished and was too unwell to attend the medal ceremony! 

As his story clearly illustrates, evidence-based knowledge of what athletes should eat and drink for optimal health and athletic performance was somewhat lacking (and by that I mean pretty much non-existent) in the early days of modern, organised sport. 

Despite a lack of understanding of the subject matter, people have taken a keen interest in what athletes should consume to maximise their performance for thousands of years…

Greek Tragedies

One of the earliest records of a specialist diet for sport comes from Charmis of Sparta, the winner of the 200-yard sprint in the Ancient Olympiad of 668 BC. He trained on a diet of dried figs which, given their high sugar content, certainly isn’t the worst regime you’re going to read about today. There’s no telling whether this also kept Charmis ‘regular’ or not, but that’d be a plausible side benefit of such a high-fibre diet. 💩

Legend has it that Milo of Croton, one of the most successful wrestlers of the ancient Greek Olympiads, also took an extreme approach to his diet around a century after Charmis in the 540s BC. He was said to ‘enjoy’ a daily intake of 20 lbs of bread, 20 lbs of meat and 18 pints of wine’. If nothing else, this ought to have made him heavier than his competitors, a potentially useful approach given his occupation, I guess. 

Before you head to the off-license to stock up on the vino, it’s worth noting that Milo was eaten by a lion after he got stuck trying to show off his strength to a lumberjack. Not exactly role model material.

Meanwhile, a thousand kilometers east in Stymphalus, a guy called Dromeus had adopted a diet almost exclusively consisting of meat in order to maximise his performance in distance running events. It was a common ancient belief that you took on an animal’s strengths by eating its flesh, so warriors were known to eat the heart of the lion for courage, or a deer for its speed. If you’re thinking that this is not very scientific, trust your instincts.

Dromeus’ move toward meat as a staple of his diet remained influential in the field of sports nutrition for a very long time after his death. In fact, there are many reports of athletes hitting the protein hard well into the 20th century. Ex-pro cyclist, Eric De Clerq, told us that he was advised to eat a steak for breakfast before a particularly gruelling race across France and Belgium in the early 1990s, otherwise he “wouldn’t make it to the border”.   

The Sugar Rush

The role carbohydrates might play in athletic performance started to pique the interest of scientists in the 1920s when doctors in Boston took measurements from athletes competing in an early edition of the now world famous marathon occurring in their city. 

They were particularly interested in blood sugar levels and noticed that the runners who had the lowest readings tended to be in the worst shape at the finish line. 

Their conclusion was that “the adequate ingestion of carbohydrate before and during any prolonged and vigorous muscular effort might be of considerable benefit in preventing hypoglycemia and the accompanying development of symptoms of exhaustion”. 

This statement is one of the earliest formal recommendations that endurance athletes should take in carbs as a means of sustaining performance. The timing tallies with anecdotes of Tour De France riders eating bananas during stages.

But it wasn’t until the ‘50s that sports nutrition started to become a specific field of study, with an attempt to consolidate guidelines for athletes based on real science, rather than tradition. 

Interestingly, in his short 1951 paper on the ‘Feeding of Athletes’, Canadian doctor E.H. Bensley cited the replacement of salt as a successful remedy for athletes who were suffering muscle cramps and the value of sugar for energy “if exercise should be prolonged”. This hints at an early understanding of key aspects of what we now call ‘The 3 Levers’ of endurance sports nutrition.

Despite these moves forward, the approach of most athletes still wasn’t quite as scientific as it is now. Louis Malle’s 1962 documentary Vive La Tour stressed the importance of the ‘drinking raids’ where riders would literally raid cafes and shops for pastries, wine and anything else they could get their hands on in order to sustain their efforts.

Ultimately, the understanding that endurance athletes mainly needed to consume carbohydrate, fluid and sodium during exercise led to the creation of Gatorade in 1965 and the 'sports drink' concept remains a key pillar of the sports nutrition world to this day.


Around the same time that the Gatorade prototypes were being fed to the University of Florida’s football team, researchers in Sweden were cutting small chunks of muscle out of athletes’ legs to study what effect muscle glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrate in the body) had on exercise performance. 

Through their rather brutal work, they concluded that by stocking the muscles up with carbs before exercise, you could exert yourself harder and for longer than you could with your muscles in a low-carb state. The practice of carb-loading was born.

Elite British marathoner, Ron Hill, is widely credited as one of the first to test this carb-loading theory out in serious competition. In the same summer we first put a man on the moon, he put himself on the top step of the European Championships marathon podium having undergone a strict phase of carb-depletion followed by a process of carb-loading in the days leading up to the race. 

It’s since been proven that carb-depletion isn’t necessary for optimal glycogen storage, and the idea of endurance athletes eating rice, pasta and potatoes in the days leading up to an event is as relevant now as it was back in the summer of ‘69. 

Interestingly, whilst he was big on carb-loading pre-race, Ron (and most others of his era) were still resisting the idea of consuming much at all during their races on the basis that it was preferable to ‘tough it out’ and not risk gastrointestinal upset.

High in Carb, Low in Fat

Athletes have gradually become comfortable with the idea of eating and drinking during bouts of endurance exercise, to the point that it’s now accepted as legitimately performance-enhancing. 

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been a couple of interesting twists and turns in more recent years.

Whilst carbs as the primary fuel source for athletes’ hasn’t gone fully out of fashion at any point, there was a surge in interest in the idea of training your body to utilise more fat a few years ago. This was aimed at tapping into the more or less limitless supply of energy we have stored as fat in our bodies through fasting or following a ‘Low-Carb, High-Fat (LCHF)’. 

There may be some merit to following a periodised carbohydrate approach (modulating carb intake based on the type, duration and intensity of training and racing), but the consensus seems to have settled on a high carb approach to fueling being best for most endurance athletes. 

The Case Study data that we collect from elite endurance athletes performing at the sharp end shows that there’s a trend towards faster performers taking in more carbs per hour than ever before. 

In the early 2000s, ~60g of carb per hour was touted as optimal during long and intense efforts. Nowadays, there are plenty of documented cases of athletes consuming over 90g - and even 100g per hour - something that was practically unheard of not too long ago. 

Whilst there will certainly be a ceiling for how high athletes can go with their carb consumption, many are now experimenting with escalating amounts of fuel in training and racing in an attempt to gain an edge over their competition. 

If you’re interested in understanding the levels of carbohydrate (and fluid and sodium) you’ll need to perform at your best, use our free Fuel & Hydration Planner to get a personalised plan for your next event. Our algorithms are based on the latest scientific consensus discussed in the latter part of this piece. 

And, if you have any questions, you can book a free one-to-one video call with our Athlete Support crew to pick their brains and help you consign your race nutrition issues to history.

Hopefully, having read this piece, your first question won’t be “which brand of pesticide goes best with the brandy I’ll be drinking during my marathon?”

Further reading