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Nutrient Timing
Part 2:  Nutrition During the Workout
by Tom Jordan MS, RD

One of my clients asked me recently, “Isn’t Gatorade just sugar and salt in water.” 

My reply should have been:  “Yes, now go buy some and meet me for a run”

As is my habit, I instead gave them the long version (which you’ll see below).  BUT— if you just want the overview, skip to the bottom of the article for the summary on what to do for your next workout.

As anyone attentive to good nutritional habits knows, avoiding sugar and salt is one of the primary battles we face with the typical American “S.A.D. Diet” (S.A.D. = Standard American Diet  . . . pretty sad!).

So, why would a Sport Nutritionist recommend that a health-conscious client consume water and salt during an event?

Athletic Endeavors Deplete Performance Nutrients

Well first off—the primary principle with During Workout Nutrition is to maintain hydration.  Exercise requires fuel. Fuel comes form converting stored carbohydrates and fat to a form of sugary fuel called glucose. This conversion requires water.  Even the leanest runner has virtually unlimited fuel stores, so if our exercise goal is primarily weight loss—and you exercise intensely for less than 60 minutes—just drinking water is generally fine. For weight loss it would be counterproductive adding the additional calories found in the standard sport drink.

However, if we are extending a run past 1 hour for those with weight loss goals, or beyond 30 minutes for those with performance goals, consuming “just sugar and salt in water” is a necessity.

Using Sugar As An Ally

Sugar is very easily absorbed through the digestive tract.  Not the best idea when you’re sitting on the couch or confined to a desk at work, but exactly what you need when all of your resources (blood, oxygen, water, nutrients) are being sent to the exercising muscles.

A beverage with 12-18 grams of sugar (per 8oz) has the same osmolality (concentration) as blood.  Therefore, it is actually absorbed even faster than water alone, so it’s into the blood stream and heading toward the muscles quicker—with less time to slosh around in the stomach.

Consuming carbohydrate during exercise is clearly shown to increase endurance, and also shown to reduce muscle tissue breakdown.

Sodium Can Be A Good Thing

100-200mg of Sodium per 8 ounces of fluid does 2 things for us:

  • Helps the body to retain water to keep blood concentration diluted.  Hanging on to water during a run means less dehydration and potentially fewer stops at the porta john.
  • Stimulates the thirst response—studies where participants are given plain water or a sport drink and asked to run in a hot room naturally consume more sports drink than the subjects drinking plain water (and in turn are better hydrated and have improved performance)

What about those Gels and Gu’s, Sports Beans, Chews, etc.?

There are a lot of well marketed products on the market now… but the bottom line is that hydration is key.  These products can be useful if you have access to water on your run but can’t carry it with you (like running on a route that has drinking fountains).  Use the same principles—try to get 15g of sugar along with 8 ounces of water.  This would mean taking a Gu or Gel pack as you’re coming up on a water stop or water fountain.  The Gu/Gel is way too dense, but it would be diluted in the stomach to approximately the same concentration of Gatorade that your running partner is consuming (without having to carry the bottles with you for the last 3 miles).  ,

What About Protein Drinks?

The jury is still out on whether to consume protein during exercise. In research studies there seems to be a very minor benefit to protein consumption during workouts, however this minor benefit is negated by the fact that it’s going to be more challenging on the digestive tract to deal with protein while exercising vigorously.

Furthermore, it just simply doesn’t taste very good in a sport beverage, and anything that deters us from consuming fluids during the run is enough to say let’s wait until someone proves there’s a significant benefit.

My Recommendation
Personally, if I’m about to do a high intensity and long duration workout, I will add 4-6 grams of Branch Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) powder to my sports drink. BCAA’s are the 3 amino acids we get from protein that are most involved in preventing muscle breakdown. A minor benefit can be crossing the finish line at 2:36 vs 2:39 which to me is huge.

Proteins or not I can't overemphasize the importance of getting your fluids in. Summarizing the protein addition I would recommend the first hour just Gatorade; the 2nd hour Gatorade with BCAA’s. Examples of BCAA’s would be Elite Recoup from Dynamatize Nutrition.

If your goal is primarily weight loss, water is fine for vigorous exercise up to 60 minutes

  • For exercise over 60 minutes consider a sports beverage with 12-18g Carbs and 100-200mg Sodium per 8 ounces.  If your goal is performance improvement, this would apply for any workout over 30 minutes and might include 3-4 grams of protein (per 8oz)
  • Try for 8 ounces of fluid every 15 minutes, but you can find out what the optimal fluid rate is for you by applying the pre and post workout weight strategy below
  • Weigh-in Before and After your workout – if you’re losing more than 1 pound in a workout, consider increasing your fluid intake
  • Electrolyte tablets are not necessary and would only be recommended if someone is unable to consume a regular sport drink or is a extremely salty sweater. Also they may be beneficial on a severely hot and humid day
  • Gu’s, Gels, and Beans are fine but make sure to combine them with regular water to simulate dilution to a sports drink concentration (15g sugar per 8oz water)

Clickable Resources Below:

Nutrient Timing - Overview

Nutrient Timing: Part 1 - Pre Workout Nutrition

Nutrient Timing: Part 3 - Post Workout Nutrition

Nutrient Timing Part 4 - The Other 24/7

Tom’s Bio

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