You’re part way through your workout. Your muscles are aching. You’re tired. Then there are those nagging hunger pangs… Several more miles to go… Do you push on without fuel or grab some nourishment?
For the endurance athlete, this is the challenge of the mid-workout meal. Glycogen depletion leads to heavy legs, and low blood sugar leads to fatigue. You need energy—but it’s got to be easy to digest. The last thing you want is to feel nauseous. At this point, fast-absorbing simple carbohydrates are the best fuel for tired muscles—not protein and healthy fats. (Save those nutrients along with carbs for after a workout to promote recovery.)
A good rule of thumb is to have 30–60 grams of carbs per hour for exercise lasting 1–2 hours, or 45–90 grams of carbs per hour for exercise lasting more than 2 hours. Although sports drinks provide about 15 grams of carbohydrate/cup, they don’t satisfy hunger. Along with fluids for hydration, it helps to chew on something for energy to stave off those hunger pangs.
Through research, carbohydrate supplementation during exercise (longer than one hour) has been shown to reduce fatigue and promote recovery. Accordingly, endurance athletes have been known to use a wide variety of carbohydrate supplements like gels, shots, bars, and chews to help them run farther and faster. For many, the commercial stuff works. But for others, they just don’t jive as being part of a lifestyle focused on eating simply and as close to nature as possible.
Generally speaking, most endurance athletes that I’ve counseled strive to make nutritious food choices for performance and health. So how do they feel that whole-food alternatives stack up against the highly processed options when it comes to taste, convenience, effectiveness, nutrient content and cost? Here’s the scoop:
- Taste – They all agree that dried fruit is a popular choice for fuel during a workout. Hands down, raisins are a favorite—described as “sweet,” “chewy,” “caramelized” and “easy to digest.” Some like to fuel a few raisins at a time—others by the handful. Homemade raisin energy bars or raisin-honey bite-size sandwiches pack a low-volume high-carbohydrate punch.
- Convenience – Raisins are viewed as highly portable—especially important for cycling and running. Since they don’t require refrigeration and have a long shelf life, they can be stored in a backpack, gym bag or car trunk. When exercising, most runners prefer to carry them in a wrist pouch. Cyclists use a variety of different food containers that work well within their particular workout regimen.
- Effectiveness – When it comes to sports performance, science has spoken: raisins are just as effective as commercial carbohydrate supplements. Remember the research studies we discussed in my earlier blog (blog link: The Power of Real Food for Sports Performance)? Here’s a quick recap of the runners study: When runners completed three 80-minute runs followed by a fast 5K time trail, they ran an average of one minute faster when they refueled with raisins and sports chews instead of water alone between their long run and the time trial. The secret to raisins’ success is the high amount of naturally occurring sugar. Similar findings were shown in a study on cyclists. In my experience, athletes enjoy incorporating raisins into their workouts. Along with the taste, they like the energy boost and lack of GI distress.
- Nutrient Content – Although raisins and sports chews both produced equal performance, raisins have a few more advantages. Namely, they provide potassium, fiber and iron, and unlike store-bought fueling chews, contain no added sugar, flavor or colors. It takes about a ¼ cup of raisins to equal the 100 calories found in one serving of 3 chews. Clearly the nod goes to raisins for being the more nutrient-dense fueling option.
- Cost – Workouts add up—and so does the cost for fuel that’s needed to support those workouts! Athletes are pleased to find that raisins are not only a healthier alternative, but a less expensive one as well when compared to synthetic products.
Are Raisins a Winner? The athletes I’ve talked with think so. Give them a try. Don’t wait until you’re tired, hungry and running on empty! Remember: “No one plans to fail, they merely fail to plan.” Make raisins part of your fueling plan!