Run with an Idea : Are sports nutrition products a waste of money?

Run with an Idea is back for 2014 and I’ve jumped back on the wagon for this one – “Are sports nutrition products a waste of money?”

This is a really tough one. Let’s be honest, there is a lot of hype around sports nutrition products and many of them are promoted through mainstream advertising, often with little science to back up the claims. This can of course lead to unrealistic expectations of performance benefits, leaving people feeling like they’ve wasted their money when they don’t achieve the results they thought they would. There is also the argument against sports nutrition products by people who say you can (and should) get the nutrition in the special products from, well, food. However, there are also loads of people who use sports nutrition products and swear by them, and there is a basic scientific truth behind the benefits that the different products claim to provide – protein is used by the body to repair, renew or grow muscle, carbohydrates are used to provide energy for muscles to fire, and electrolytes provide the medium through which nerve and muscle impulses are controlled. Optimising your intake of these ‘should’ have benefits, right? As I said, a tough one…

Where do I stand on the issue? Well, I personally use ‘sports nutrition’ products in both my training and races as I perceive a benefit from using them, however the question is about their ‘value’, and this can mean different things to different people.

Sports Nutrition products I use

I use a selection of sports nutrition products, however the main two are Protein Powder and Energy Gels. I do sometimes use energy bars, recovery bars, and specially formulated recovery drinks but this is rare and is usually a result of buying something on a whim at a race expo, or munching on the freebies you get in your race finishers swag.

Protein Powder

I drink a protein shake after long runs or big workouts. For me, my protein use is not about muscle or weight gain. I’m happy with my weight and muscle tone. I’m never going to be Arnie, and I don’t want to be. I use protein because it is a simple and effective way to deliver protein to damaged muscles within the 30-45 minute ‘window’ when your body is optimally primed to receive and use nutrients for recovery. The theory is that swift provision of protein aids recovery of muscles, and the way I see it, a faster recovery means I can be back to hard training, sooner.

Could you get the protein through other means? Of course. All you need to do is eat the right foods in the right quantity. There is nothing ‘magic’ about straight protein powder other than it is distilled out of the original food product it came from with milk, eggs, soy or hemp being the most common sources. I use protein shakes because it is simple, effective and fast, plus it has very little carbohydrate with it so I can manage my carb intake through other sources.

Just a little note. I use straight-up unflavoured whey protein powder – with a protein content of around 80%. It has no added carbohydrates, caffeine, guarana or ‘special’ additives, unlike many of the ‘big brand’ protein mixes. It also happens to be cheaper, but I suspect this is because it’s ‘simpler’ and because it doesn’t come with an all-media marketing campaign to boost sales…

After long runs my favourite recovery drink is a shake of 500ml of low fat chocolate milk, a pinch of salt, a scoop of protein (equivalent to 20 grams protein) and a banana. Protein, carbs and salts in one oh-so-tasty drink!

Energy Gels

The other sports nutrition product I regularly use are energy gels. There are a massive range of energy gels and I’ve tried most, but my favourite are Gu Triberry (has caffeine) and Gu Strawberry Banana (no caffeine). Gu (sports nutrition) is not to be confused with Gü (tasty and calorific desserts). While both have loads of easily absorbed calories, only Gu is designed for use by athletes and endurance competitors with 100 calories, electrolytes, amino acids and a dose of Vitamin C & E in each packet.
I tend to use energy gels sparingly through training. My theory is that I want my training to make my natural energy systems more efficient and better able use fat and liver glycogen sources. Having gels before all my runs and throughout my long runs would keep my blood sugar level (the easiest energy pathway for the body) topped-up, lessening the training effect on the other pathways.

Generally speaking I don’t have any gels in training runs under 16km/10miles as the body can store all the energy it needs for 90 minutes. If I go past 20km/13miles or two hours, then I’ll take a gel with me to take at the two-hour mark. This way I get about 30 minutes into the glycogen depletion zone before giving a little top-up to the system. I very rarely train for more than three hours but when I do I take a second gel around the 2:45 mark, which will see me through to about the 3:30 mark.

In a race however, this is where energy gels really become useful. If you’ve trained your body to extract energy from fat and liver glycogen, using energy gels to add extra energy through simple carbs will allow you to run faster, or for longer, before you fatigue and hit the wall.

When racing, you simply can’t ingest as much energy as you burn. Your body can cope with about 350 calories per hour when exercising, but when racing most people burn 600+ calories per hour. The rest comes from energy stored in your body. A gel every 45 minutes is equivalent to 150 calories an hour, or just under half the 350 calories/hour. Add in some sports drink and half a banana or sport beans at the aid stations and you’ll be getting close to maximum intake.

In races I have a gel 15 minutes before race time and then every 45 minutes after that. For me, this means two gels for a 10k, four gels in a half-marathon and six for a full marathon (including the pre-start one). Some people take them every 30 minutes, but I find this makes me a bit too, ahem, gassy. And not the burping kind. Just thinking of my fellow runners is all…

Sports nutrition products : A waste of money?

Back to the question. Are sports nutrition products a waste of money? For me? ”No”. I personally see great value in sports nutrition products, and utilise them in a manner which is appropriate for me and helps my performance.

However, if they are not suited to the person, or are inappropriate for their needs, sports nutrition products can certainly be a waste of money. It’s about finding the right types that work for you and give you a benefit. If you are interested in using sports nutrition products to help your running, then I would recommend you do your research and speak with your doctor, physio and coach (if you have one) about what would be beneficial and helpful to your progress. Not all sports nutrition products are created equal, and each one is suited to a specific purpose. Make sure you buy the sort which is suited to your needs, and then trial them to check they work well with you. That way you can make sure you’re not wasting your money!

Happy running everyone!


Get Going, Get Running!

Related articles:

Choosing a Protein Powder –

Everything you Need to Know About Energy Gels –

Best Energy Gel Review –

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About getgoing-getrunning

Hi, I’m Bernie and I’m a just guy who writes about the things which get me going and get me running, even though my running is never going to result in me standing on a podium!

Posted on January 29, 2014, in Blog, Run with an Idea and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I only took two GUs in my Boston Qualifying race (and one Tootsie Roll), but that was a mistake. I’m sure it would have been a lot more pleasant if I had paid more attention to my nutrition during the race.

  2. Great post Bernie. Very helpful.

  3. Great post! I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head with this sentence “if they are not suited to the person, or are inappropriate for their needs, sports nutrition products can certainly be a waste of money” – it’s all about doing a little bit of research before opening your wallet!

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