Personal bests, competition victories, new challenges – athletes, especially endurance athletes, tend to push themselves to the limit to perform. It is therefore logical that there is great interest in sports supplements, such as running gels and protein powders.
We all need macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins and fats that give us energy and build structures such as muscles and other cells in our body.
When we are very physically active, such as long-distance runners, cyclists or triathletes, our need for both energy and building blocks for muscles and other cells is increased. increases because of the extra work our bodies do.
So supplements – such as sports gels or protein powders – that contain these macronutrients can make sense. But can they do something that food can’t?
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What’s in sports gels?
Sports gels (also called energy gels) are essentially carbohydrate supplements. They contain simple sugars such as maltodextrin, fructose and glucose. These sugars do not require much digestion to be absorbed and used as energy. Sugars are the easiest form of energy for our body to use.
During long periods of exercise, our brain is stored energy sources are running out. Our blood sugar drops and we use the glycogen stored in our muscles. So during long bouts of exercise, athletes such as long-distance cyclists and runners, as well as players in extended “stop and start” type sports, such as football need to replace these stores.
The research into the benefit of carbohydrate supplementation during exercise is not new. It dates as far back as the 1924 Boston Marathon.
The gel forms are one bit more modern, rising in the 1980s and 1990s. For some people and sports, they have replaced the previously used sugary drinks. Gels have the advantage of being in a more concentrated form than a drink wear less and less to take for the same carb kick.
What about protein powders?
Protein powders are exactly what the name suggests. They are typical casein or whey (proteins found in milk) but can also occur in vegetable forms.
Proteins don’t give you the quick energy boost that sugars give, even though proteins and carbohydrates do the same energy value (meaning gram for gram they have the same amount of calories).
This is because proteins are more complicated for the body to break down and use. But protein is not only important for energy. It provides important building blocks for most of our body’s structures, including our muscles. This is why protein powders are popular with weightlifters and other strength athletes.
But can food do the same?
Many foods are rich in carbohydrates and protein. Honey, dried fruit, bananas, and even those half orange wedges are all potential carbohydrate sources for athletes.
Consuming carbohydrates in these forms has been shown to reduce the the same benefits as gels during exercise.
For protein, milk, eggs, and meat are all great sources.
Food sources also have the added benefit of being complex, meaning they contain other good stuff in addition to the macros, including vitamins and minerals, and bioactive compounds that promote good health.
Foods that are whole (unprocessed) or minimally processed are the most cost-effective way to get a mix of nutrients needed for rest and recovery after and during exercise. They may also taste a bit better.
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Then why supplement?
But the supplements do have some benefits. They are highly concentrated, which means you get a lot in quickly, have to take less with you and are less likely to feel too full.
So they are but are generally considered by athletes more convenient and are also linked to less intestinal discomfort (such as cramps and diarrhoea).
The processed and packaged nature also means you know exactly what and how much you’re getting, which can be important for some athletes to keep track of.
Any Disadvantages of Macro Supplements?
Macro supplements can be expensive and can use a lot of packaging. The huge variety of products on the market also means that products can contain numerous other ingredients (for better and for worse). Some sports gels contain stimulants such as caffeine or preservatives such as salts. Some protein powders contain added sugars.
And like all supplements, they are not without risks.
Highly concentrated sports gels can cause this upset stomach and excessive protein supplementation can damage other organs, such as the kidneys.
Macro supplements can also be made dehydration worse because the body has to move water to deal with these concentrated products.
Blocks and chewing gum and bars can be even more concentrated, but have a more complex composition.
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Science is also a bit sexist
The vast majority of studies on sports gels men have used, and the same benefits may not be seen in women. This is due to sex differences between men and women in how readily carbohydrates are used as energy, with women oxidizing more fat and fewer carbohydrates during endurance exercise than men.
Whether supplements or foods are the right choice for you when exercising ultimately depends on your preferences, budget, needs, and the duration and intensity of your workout or sport.
For casual, short- or low-intensity sports activities, supplements may be excessive, but for high-intensity or long-duration activities, they may have benefits.