You see them everywhere - GU, CLIF Shot, Hammer Products, Luna Sport Moons, etc. But, when do you really NEED to use these products? Marketing tells new runners you need to use them often. However, science may say otherwise. Could these products actually make you slower and be counterproductive to your weight-loss goals when used in the wrong context? Let's take a look.
We all know that word of mouth is a powerful tool, and according to an article authored by Gretchen Voss and published by Fitness Magazine," it's been vital in growing the interest among everyday exercisers, especially women, who go to their local health stores looking for a performance edge. In the past few years the mainstreaming of sports nutrition products has transformed a once-niche market into a $25 billion industry — one that's grown more than 10 percent since 2006, according to experts at the Nutrition Business Journal."
So, how well do these sports nutrition supplements work? These products are loosely regulated by the FDA, and they leave a vast majority of the nutritional navigating up to the consumer. "A company can put a garbage product out on the shelves without a drop of science behind it, but use the most buzzwords — doctor recommended, clinically proven, 30 pounds in 30 days — and that's often the one that sells the most," says Will Brink, author of Fat Loss Revealed, who has been reporting on the supplement industry for two decades. "It's problematic because it overshadows those companies that do actually pay for sound research." That is exactly what some businesses are doing - trying to distinguish themselves in an overcrowded and ever-growing marketplace by publishing study findings in reputable medical journals and eliminating any stigma that consumers, women in particular, might link with an industry once considered to be for bodybuilders only. At the same time, marketers are shifting the language from big and buff to strong and healthy.
Guess what? This marketing is totally working for companies such as GNC whose 2009 second-quarter consolidated earnings of $432.4 million represented more than a 2 percent increase from the same quarter the year before, even in the down economy. Part of this increase can be attributed to GNC's effort to target its products toward women.
Next, let me ask you this. Do you know what is in your energy product? Next, do you know what each ingredient does for you? Have a look, and be mindful of which ingredients are listed first:
Did you know that some of these substances (in high concentrations) are banned by anti-doping agencies? If professional endurance athletes don't need these substances to perform, neither do you.
So now let's look at when you really need these products. We already know that companies put millions into marketing. In endurance sports such as running and cycling, "hitting the wall" or "bonking" lovingly refers to a condition caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles. The result? Fatigue. It's like your brain keeps telling your legs to go, but they just won't.
Now, gels can be very useful when used for the right event - say the marathon or ultra races. We’ll touch on this a bit more later. However, when you're using gels or energy drinks and supplements during every run, science shows you can actually be harming your body and hindering your training process. The slower we go, the more fat we burn and the more glycogen we preserve. The faster we go, the more carbohydrates we burn relative to our fat stores. At our marathon pace, most of us have about 2 hours before we run out of glycogen and only have fat left to burn. The good news is, at easy pace (approximately 1 minute per mile slower than marathon race pace), the majority of us can go MUCH longer without running out of glycogen, so there is no need to take gels when running that easy. If running at marathon race pace for a training run, you don't need gels or energy supplements/drinks when running for 2 hours or less. In fact, some studies show that you don't need any additional supplements on easy (not race pace) runs of 3-3.5 hours (note: water is not included as an additional supplement in this study). The science doesn't support the idea that anything bad will happen to a runner who doesn't ingest carbs during their runs.
So, is this a no harm no foul situation? Nope. Taking an occasional gel likely isn't going to hurt you, but if you make a practice of using them too often, it will likely be to your detriment. An over reliance on gels/energy supplements will make you relatively slower, fatter, and poorer(this stuff isn't cheap).
Why would it make me slower, you ask? Well, by taking so many gels your body always has glycogen at the ready will never allow it to learn how to use fat efficiently. So, you'll put yourself at the risk of bonking and running slower than you otherwise could.
Fatter? Really? Hopefully it doesn't come as a surprise to you that you're ingesting a lot of unnecessary calories if you're using the supplements when they're not needed. Most energy supplements/gels pack about 74 calories per ounce. The average runner burns 85 calories per mile. You can do the math.
As for the broke comment - well, we all know this stuff isn't cheap. Let's take a look. Let's say you run 30 miles per week and take a gel every 3 miles. That is 10 gels per week. We'll be conservative and say that the cost is $1/gel. At best you're spending $45/month or $540/year on gels, aka fake food. Think of all the gear and shoes you could buy!
Like we said before, gels certainly do serve a purpose. They're great for when you actually NEED to replace the glycogen depleted on the run. They are beneficial for races like the marathon distance or longer. Think of it this way - in marathons and ultras, glycogen reserves are the equivalent of a fuel tank. It's possible you can run your tank completely dry without something like GU in an event where you're working at maximum effort for more than 2-3+ hours. So, they certainly serve an important purpose. We also recommend getting your body used to them if you're going to race with them. If you're planning to use a supplement on your marathon race day, use it during your longer long runs (runs that are at least 2+ hours) to get your stomach and GI tract used to the product. If you don't, you'll be sorry on race day as you very impatiently wait in line for the port-a-potty or your body seizes the second you take your first swallow.
All we ask is that you consider how you are treating your body. Are you doing what is beneficial to you and your training, or are you buying into the media hype? Delve into the science and you'll find that you likely don't need your energy supplements as often as you may think. Is there anything wrong with grabbing a water or some Gatorade during your run? No - especially if it's hot or you plan to drink during your race. In fact, we encourage you to drink as much water as your body can handle as soon after every single one of your runs as possible. Just be mindful of how you're caring for yourself and what your nutrition may be doing to your training.
See you Wednesday morning at Harke Park.
Who Picks the Topics?
Each week, we notice different things. We try to incorporate the questions we are receiving or the training issues we are noticing into our post(s) for the week. If there is something you'd like us to cover, let us know!