Ragan Sutterfield— Many triathletes generally avoid the junk—no processed foods, no simple sugars, just good whole foods—in their daily diets. But all of this tends to end on race day where gels, protein bars and sport drinks fuel athletes toward the finish line. For many the combination works, but for others the gels and sports drinks just don’t fit as a part of a lifestyle aimed at health. The question becomes: Are there good whole-food alternatives that work as well as the processed options?
New research gives some hope to those wanting to fuel with whole foods. A recent study compared a 6 percent carbohydrate sports drink to whole bananas consumed by trained cyclists over a 75K time trial. The result? There was no difference in performance or recovery between the cyclists who ate bananas and those who consumed the sports drink. But how practical is it to stuff a bunch of bananas in your tri kit pocket during a race?
Six-time Ironman world champ Dave Scott would know. In the early days of Ironman he raced Kona with a load of bananas in his jersey pocket. “It was a catastrophe,” he says. “With five bananas in my jersey in the Kona sun sloshing around, they became a mess quickly.” As a coach, even though he wouldn’t recommend a jersey full of bananas, Scott thinks whole foods still have a place. “I have athletes who can’t handle much sugar on the run and use coconut water for hydration and electrolytes,” Scott says. He knows other athletes who have successfully used baked potatoes in races. “The key with whole foods is to eat more frequently with less volume,” Scott says, noting that most athletes nosh too much, too soon in a race.
One athlete who has found success with whole-food fueling is Diane Isaacs, a top age-grouper who has claimed fourth in her age group at Kona. While racing, Isaacs relies on sprouted seeds, small avocados, soaked nuts and goji berries to fuel her body. “Sprouting and soaking helps makes seeds and nuts more easily digestible during a race,” Isaacs says.
Ultra endurance athlete Rich Roll, the author of Finding Ultra, says he eats lightly baked yams and bananas on rides, but he believes that processed carbs can have their place during a race—especially products with complex carbs rather than simple sugars. The goal though, says Roll, should be to “get back to basics—as close to the natural state as possible.”
For some, simplicity may mean that gels and sports drinks will stay in their race-day diet. But for those who don’t want to consume heavily processed products even on race day, there are alternatives that are working for competitive athletes. Whole-food fueling might just take a little more planning and a lot of experimentation to find what works for you.
Try it: Whole-Food Swaps
To train with whole foods is akin to changing from gasoline to diesel—you must train your body to adapt to the new fuel. If you’re used to gels, bars and blocks, here are a few alternatives you should try as you make the change.
- Gels: Try half a cup of mashed banana with a dash of lemon juice and just enough water to make it squeeze through a gel flask. Half a cup of banana has the equivalent calories and carbs of a Gu gel.
- Chews: Try dried pineapple. Two pieces actually have more calories and carbs than two blocks.
- Bars: Blend almonds and goji berries for a flavorful, calorie-rich snack perfect for long bike rides. You can add coconut oil to make balls that will easily fit in a bento box.
- Sports drinks: Mix coconut water (high in electrolytes) with cherry juice (high in sugar and vitamins) for a cocktail that doesn’t taste bad, even when hot.