These days, attempting to fuel yourself with healthy food products often feels more challenging than one might expect. How do you know which sports nutrition products are the best fuel for performance and recovery? I know I want to only use products that will enhance my running and help build me up into a stronger runner.
It becomes especially challenging when looking for pre and post run energizing and recovering fuels. Most of the products on the store shelves today are marketed by corporate giants as the “best options” for athletes to optimize performance. However, these same companies use ingredients like artificial colors, flavorings, excess sugar, GMOS, and other nasty additives hidden among their so-called “healthy” products.
Instead of blindly choosing based on labels, I wanted to compare and contrast these products with some of their whole food and natural counterparts. I hope these comparisons will showcase the vast difference between some common go-to fueling items for runners and their healthier alternatives.
1. Gatorade, Powerade and Other Sports Drinks
Gatorade, Powerade and other sports drinks are generally accepted as the best thirst quenchers and electrolyte replenishers for pre and post workout fueling. They are marketed as the absolute best choice for athletes and runners, but in reality, I don’t believe this to be the case. Frankly, the ingredients in these sports drinks scare me as they are full of artificial flavorings and sweeteners, excess sugar including high fructose corn syrup / HFCS (called glucose-fructose in Canada), artificial colourings (i.e. “yellow #6”) and the emulsifier sucrose acetate isobutyrate (an additive used as a replacement for brominated vegetable oil which was removed from Gatorade and Powerade a few years ago), to name just a few.
Personally, I don’t particularly want any of these ingredients potentially interfering with my health or performance as I attempt to fuel myself for my biggest running endeavors. Instead, I opt for coconut water as a better and healthier alternative. This choice actually occurs in nature!
Coconut water is free from all the unnecessary chemicals, processed sugars, and dyes that are found in traditional sports drinks, but it is still has many of the electrolytes required to help me bounce back from or fuel for a hard workout.
When buying coconut water, I look for ones made from young coconuts and from Thailand (tastes better), are not from concentrate, are ideally organic, and that only have one ingredient (coconut water) in them. Add a pinch of sea salt to it (as it’s naturally quite low in sodium) or use it as the liquid to mix up your favourite post-workout smoothie, which brings us to our next topic…
2. Conventional Chocolate Milk and Protein Shakes
The most common recovery snack I find unfortunately pushed by many sports nutritionists and coaches is good old fashioned chocolate milk. This is because studies have shown it has the perfect balance of carbs to protein ratios for recovery (3:1 or 4:1) and this particular ratio help athletes recover faster than pure carbohydrates.
However, I’m especially cautious when reaching for this beverage post workout. Conventional dairy is chalk full of antibiotics and hormones that actually inhibit recovery and the chocolate milk is full of processed sugar, commonly high fructose corn syrup, which causes inflammation.
However, if chocolate milk is your favorite way to recover from a hard run, I suggest choosing an organic option with an ingredient list that reads: milk, sugar, cocoa, salt. It’ll probably also contain carrageenan or another stabilizer such as gellan gum which is in this Organic Valley one I personally like.
Many runners are lactose intolerant or have sensitivities to dairy (gluten and dairy tend to be the largest offenders in those with food sensitivities), and therefore chocolate milk would not be helpful to them at all. For these athletes, a fruit smoothie (such as this Cherry Berry Recovery Shake) with an added pure protein powder (either a vegan protein or a pure whey isolate) can be used to adequately recover. When looking for protein supplements, opt for ones that are made from organic, whole food sources. I personally love supporting companies like Vega and Garden of Life because they create replenishing protein supplements for runners with whole food ingredients!
Although ibuprofen is not a food or fuel for runners, it is a common drug that runners turn to when a pain or soreness pops up. I used to have a teammate that called the last month of track season the time to start popping ibuprofen like its candy. This statement really scared me to be honest, as I never want to rely on drugs to mask any pain that my body is feeling. However, I do want to find natural and herbal remedies to combat inflammation. So, when I feel some extra soreness I turn to tart cherry juice, turmeric and ginger to ease the pain. These help deal with the inflammation in your body instead of masking symptoms and have no negative side effects!
For those who want to use these natural sources as a method of managing inflammation to heal faster, studies show that drinking 1 to 1½ cups of pure tart cherry juice daily will reduce pain and inflammation. Additionally a curcumin supplement (such as AOR Curcuviva) has been shown to relieve pain and inflammation in athletes. Curcumin is the the most powerful anti-inflammatory component found in turmeric spice. Lastly, drinking lots of ginger tea, using fresh ginger root in cooking and baking as well as green smoothies ensures enough ginger is being consumed to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
4. Protein Bars and Energy Bars
Almost every protein or energy bar on the market is chalk full of soy protein isolate, artificial and natural flavors, processed sugars (including high fructose corn syrup), canola oil (and/or other processed cooking oils such as palm oil or corn oil), maltodextrin, and fructose. These ingredients are overly processed and not ideal when looking for foods to fuel performance. To avoid them, I find it imperative to read ingredient labels. I search for products that use non-GMO protein sources, non-processed sweeteners (such as from dates, honey, maple syrup, tapioca syrup and rice syrup), and organic ingredients that are from whole foods.
This will help ensure the integrity of the product, making it a good source of energizing or recovering fuel. However, the best option with bars is to make your own. If you have a couple extra minutes to spare and a food processor, you can whip up a batch of delicious fuel with common ingredients in your pantry. Whenever I am making bars, they never turn out the same because I always just use whatever is on hand. Some great ingredients to optimize recovery and fuel efficiently are hemp seeds, chia and flax seeds, dates, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, cacao nibs, coconut, raw honey, and oats. Simple – blend, and enjoy. Or sometimes I just grab these dates rolls – super easy!
5. Energy Gels and Chews
Energy gels and chews are a common pre-run ritual for runners who need some immediate carbohydrates heading out the door, and of course during long runs. They can have their place in a healthy diet if the ones with the least amount of harmful additives are chosen. When shopping for gels and chews, avoid those with maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, fructose and sodium benzoate in their ingredient labels. A few brands that offer gels and chews free from these ingredients include Honey Stingers, Huma and Skratch Labs.
Some healthy alternatives to store-bought gels and chews are as simple as reaching for raw and local honey packets or soft medjool dates. These whole food options are nutrient rich and provide the same immediate carbohydrates as the gels, without any unnecessary additions. Or you might want to try making your own, such as this Chocolate Mint Eat 2 Run Energy Gel, or this super easy Citrus Chia Energy Gel!
Hopefully, dissecting these commonly used sports nutrition products shows us how non-beneficial they can really be when it comes to fueling and recovering. It is my belief that excessively consuming these foods leads to injuries and inhibits performance. When I choose items to fill my cart and fuel my body, I always reach for the least processed, whole food options. Doing so fills me daily with great nutrition, makes me feel injury resistant, and helps me compete at my best.
Best wishes for healthy and speedy feet,