If you’ve ever wondered whether sports nutrition products are actually any more effective than ‘normal foods’ at sustaining exercise performance, you’re definitely not alone.

After all, until Gatorade came along in the early 1970s, there were no sports drinks really. Prior to 1986, Powerbars didn’t exist and gels only debuted at the Hawaii Ironman in 1988 - does anyone else remember the original Leppin Squeezy gel in clear packets?! Yet, for a very long time before all of these innovations, athletes had been training incredibly hard and busting out impressive performances in a whole host of gruelling events without access to the vast array of sports nutrition that’s available nowadays.

Maybe partly because of this, and also as there’s a definite trend towards more of us using ‘real food’ nutrition in races and training again these days, a group of slightly maverick sports scientists and endurance athletes from the University of Montana set up a really novel piece of research last year.

Essentially what they managed to demonstrate was that, when it comes to recovering between intense bouts of endurance exercise, eating a carefully selected bunch of items from a McDonalds or Burger King menu can be pretty much as effective as taking in a targeted suite of sports nutrition products.

Initially these results might seem surprising; how could fast food - most often portrayed as the antithesis of what any self-respecting athlete should be putting in their body - possibly deliver comparable results to ingesting a set of products specifically designed to maximise athletic performance?! However, if you dig into the details things start to make a lot more sense…

For starters (pun 100% intended…), the researchers carefully matched the amount of fluids and macronutrients (carbs/fats/proteins) that the athletes got regardless of whether these came from sports nutrition or fast food. The foods were eaten as part of a controlled recovery protocol between bouts of hard cycling, and things like muscle glycogen stores and blood profiles were used to measure recovery from a purely physiological point of view. Time trial times were also used to check the effects on actual athletic performance.

The fact that, according to their results at least, the body doesn’t seem to care too much exactly where the particular fluids and macronutrients it uses to restock muscular stores came from is not all that surprising when you think about what happens to them once they enter the body. 

As soon as the they arrive in the digestive system whatever food has been consumed is broken down into it’s component parts, which aren’t fundamentally any different in a Big Mac Meal versus an energy bar or protein shake, if the macronutrient profiles are matched.

Image Credit: PointNShoot via Flickr

Then these ‘parts’ are distributed to where they are needed in the body. Once this is achieved, short term recovery is essentially ‘complete’ and therefore both energy stores and subsequent performance levels should be no different in either case.

Although the study compared what could be described as ‘normal foods’ with those marketed as sports nutrition products, it’s worth pointing out that this is definitely not exactly the same as comparing more whole, natural, healthy foods with manufactured sports nutrition products. In reality, highly processed foods are surprisingly similar to ‘proper’ sports nutrition products in several key characteristics. 

Notably they tend to be very energy dense, contain low amounts of fibre and are easily digestible. Whilst this makes them relatively poor food choices for long term health, they can actually be advantageous when it comes to short term recovery from hard exercise.

What’s also important to note is that the researchers did carefully select the amounts and ratios of macronutrients they gave to the athletes who took part in the study based on what is theoretically optimal for recovery.

In other words these guys weren’t just left to randomly pick up whatever they fancied in the hope that it would give them the nutrients they needed, they in fact ingested a prescribed amount of macronutrients that was designed to help them recover effectively. 

Ultimately it seems that the point that the researchers were probably trying to make was that it’s getting the ratio and amounts of fluids, easily digestible carbs, proteins and fats into the body post-exercise that actually matters most of all, not exactly where these building blocks come from.

By showing that this can be achieved with cheap, widely available foods that are not marketed as sports specific products, they were just providing a bit of a reality check to counterbalance some of the over-hyped marketing BS that has sadly become part and parcel of the sports nutrition game these days, and for that they should get a big thumbs up.

In all of my years of training and competing, I’ve used all manner of foods and drinks to try to maintain and boost my performance. I’ve done a lot of races surviving solely on manufactured sports nutrition products, but also done weeks of hard training in remote places like Nepal eating only whatever local, largely natural foods that were available.

In recent years I’ve also completed quite a few long endurance events like the multi-day Transalpine trail run and the Devizes to Westminster Canoe race whilst eating and drinking a mixture of both ’normal’ foods and sports products. Reading the study made me consider what drives my decisions around the types of foods and drinks I use at different times, and how successful the various approaches have been.

Essentially I think I’ve found that, for me, there are pros and cons to using both sports nutrition products and real foods that make them more or less suitable for different situations…

The pros of using sports nutrition products

  • They can contain accurately measured ‘doses’ - or combinations of nutrients - designed to fulfil a very specific need before, during or after an activity.
  • They’re very consistent in composition and nutritional values (e.g. a bar purchased from a local store will be identical in composition to a bar of the same brand handed out during a race)
  • They can be easily consumed and digested, with a pretty low risk of GI distress when you’re working at high intensities
  • They’re generally compact, portable and packaged for consumption ‘on the go’
  • They have minimal requirements for preparation or storage and long shelf life.
  • They can contain measured doses of proven ergogenic compounds known to be good in certain situations (e.g. caffeine, nitrates, creatine etc) in concentrated and palatable formats

The cons of using sports nutrition products

  • They sometimes contain a lot of synthetic ingredients
  • They often lack micro/phytonutrients, minerals and other hidden compounds essential for good overall health
  • They can cause GI issues if they’re used too frequently, or in super long/multi-day events 

The pros of using real foods and drinks

  • They’re fundamentally what our bodies are ‘designed’ to eat and drink (assuming they’re in a reasonably natural format)
  • They often contain a high percentage of water
  • They can contain a wide range of micro and phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals essential for good health
  • They’re often more satisfying to eat and drink, especially over very extended periods
  • They can contain lots of fibre and other important organic matter

The cons of using real foods and drinks

  • They’re not always consistent in their composition and nutritional values (i.e. a small, very ripe banana has a very different nutritional profile to a large, unripe one)
  • It can be difficult to understand the exact nutritional values that an individual serving contains
  • They’re not always simple to store, prepare, transport or consume ‘on the go’
  • They rarely contain highly concentrated doses of ergogenic compounds (e.g. caffeine, nitrates, creatine etc) in an accessible format

Although I’m a big fan of eating as much wholesome, real food as I can on a day to day basis, I actually still mainly use pre-packaged sports nutrition products during most of the ‘shorter’ endurance events that I take part in.

I also use these products quite a bit during longer and harder training efforts, especially during race simulation work. They offer palatable, digestible and accurately measured amounts of carbs, electrolytes and fluids (sometimes with added caffeine), which are the main things I know I need during these shorter, more intense events.

From experience, I know pretty well how many grams of carbs, how much fluid and, of course, how much sodium I need per hour for an event that lasts just a few hours, and can work out a reasonably bullet proof strategy to get those from my go-to list of tried and tested products.

These products are also easy to carry, I can travel to races all over the world with them in my luggage. And, if I’m competing in an event where I know I’ll have to be picking up nutrition on the course, I can even practice with whatever is going to be available on the day in a few key training sessions to make sure it’s likely to work ok on the day.

When events start to get much longer than a typical half or full Ironman, or extend out beyond a single day, I become way more interested in using ‘real foods’ and non-sports specific products in combination with some of my usual sports nutrition. This is partly because they help relieve the boredom of just chomping down pre-packaged bars, gels and drinks. 

But it’s also because they allow you to listen to your body a bit more and to give it what it’s telling you it needs at that particular point in time. And that’s something I’ve found much harder to predict in extremely long events.

On the eight day Transalpine run, for instance, I found that after a couple of days I had a real craving for the sliced cheese, nuts and salami that they had at the checkpoints en route. At the time I didn’t read too much into that, but it might have been that my body just wanted a bit more fat because the intensity we were moving at was relatively low compared to shorter events.

A similar thing was true in the 125 mile Devises to Westminster canoe race, which is non-stop and lasts around 20 hours! I found that several hours in I was happiest eating cheese, bacon and egg frittatas with roasted new potatoes covered in oil and salt. That just ‘felt right’, especially in the cold weather.  In both of those events I still consumed a fair amount of sports drinks, bars and gels, but this was more like a base amount that I topped up with the real foods that my body was telling me that it wanted.

I think that, for me at least, the bottom line is that, whilst sports nutrition products rarely ever contain any magic ingredients to dramatically boost your performance over and above what you can get from carefully selected normal foods, what they do offer are convenient, measured and consistent doses of the key nutrients and compounds you need to sustain your performance.

Figuring out how many grams of carbs, or milligrams of sodium you’ll be get by eating bananas and pretzels is a lot more hit and miss, not to mention tedious. Add in the ‘faff factor’ of having to carry and consume bulky or fiddly foods on the move and, for me, it’s a no-brainer to go with the convenient sports nutrition options for the short periods of time when you’re racing or training hard. Beyond that, there are definitely benefits to be had by bringing more real and whole foods into the mix.

One thing I know for sure from training and racing with all sorts of people over the years is that there are a lot of diverse strategies for nutrition and hydration that work for different athletes.