Need a boost during your next race? Try potatoes

If you’ve ever taken part in a marathon or long cycling event, you'll be familiar with the challenge of fuel and nutrition to keep your energy levels up.

With so many options on the market, it can be daunting to find the right energy gel or drink to sustain you during a period of intense physical activity.

But research has now shown that consuming the humble potato during prolonged exercise may work just as well as a commercial carbohydrate gel to sustain blood glucose levels and boost performance in trained athletes, according to a news report.

"Potatoes are a promising alternative for athletes because they represent a cost-effective, nutrient-dense and whole-food source of carbohydrates," the researchers, led by professor Nicholas Burd, stated in the Journal of Applied Physiology. "Furthermore, they serve as a savoury race fuel option when compared (with) the high sweetness of (carbohydrate) gels."

Commercial energy gels and drinks are often high in sugar, which might cause digestive issues for some. And for others, the flavours (usually chocolate or something fruity) may not be appetising during those gruelling last stages of an endurance event.

According to Burd, the potato serves as a savoury option for those who can’t bear the thought of another sweet energy gel on the road.

How the research was done

The study was conducted by recruiting 12 healthy, fit participants who cycled at least 267km per week and who had been training for years. They were randomly assigned different fuelling options during the research – either just water, a commercial energy gel or the carbohydrate equivalent in potato form.

The researchers tested the cyclists’ core body temperature, blood glucose levels, exercise intensity, gastric emptying and any gastrointestinal symptoms during a training session which mimicked racing conditions, as well as their lactate concentrate, which signifies intense exercise in the blood.

"We found no differences between the performance of cyclists who got their carbohydrates by ingesting potatoes or gels at recommended amounts of about 60 grams per hour during the experiments," Burd said. "Both groups saw a significant boost in performance that those consuming only water did not achieve."

This means that athletes who are not too keen on costly, highly processed, sugary gels may benefit just as much from potatoes, even though some of the participants who consumed potatoes experienced more bloating during the exercise.

"All in all, our study is a proof-of-concept, showing that athletes may use whole-food sources of carbohydrates as an alternative to commercial products to diversify race-fuelling menus," Burd said.

Fuel for thought

Fuelling before and during a long-distance cycling or running event can be tricky and depends highly on individuals’ needs or preferences. Those who are already experienced endurance runners or cyclists know by now how to fuel up, usually through trial, error and experience. But if you have just recently embarked on long distance events, here are some tips:

  • Experiment with different options during your training runs and don’t try anything new on the race day.
  • Whenever you going to be out on the road for longer than 90 minutes, you need to think about fuelling along the way to keep your glycogen levels up and avoid fatigue..
  • Don’t save your fuel during the race until you start feeling fatigued – you need to build up carbohydrate levels to keep the glycogen levels in your muscles from depleting.
  • Sip bits of water after consuming your gel, energy drink or potato to dilute the carbs. Your body will process and tolerate the fuel better.
  • Become familiar with your body during your training. Sometimes fatigue can be caused by a loss of electrolytes, rather than carbs (especially if you are a salty sweater – you will see a white residue on your skin when the sweat dries). If this is the case, you may find that electrolyte sachets work better than sugary carbohydrate gels.
  •  You may be tempted to grab a date ball, gummy sweet or anything offered by a friendly spectator during your race, but stick to what you know to avoid bloating and other digestive issues.
  • If you opt for potatoes during your race, sprinkle salt on them to keep your sodium levels balanced. Remember to hydrate along the way as well.

Image credit: iStock

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