Expensive Energy Gels Vs. The Humble Potato For Endurance Athletes

Are you an endurance athlete? Cyclist, runner swimmer or maybe even a triathlete? Do you swear by your expensive, “scientifically designed” carbohydrate energy gel to give you a performance boost?

Turns out, your fancy energy gel might be no better than the humble potato when it comes to fueling your performance.

There are, however, other factors that may keep you on the gel train, so to speak. Read on!

New research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign claims that potato puree works just as well as commercial carbohydrate energy gels in sustaining blood glucose levels and boosting performance during prolonged exercise sessions.

“Research has shown that ingesting concentrated carbohydrate gels during prolonged exercise promotes carbohydrate availability during exercise and improves exercise performance,” said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Nicholas Burd, who led the research. “Our study aim was to expand and diversify race-fueling options for athletes and offset flavor fatigue.”

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“Potatoes are a promising alternative for athletes because they represent a cost-effective, nutrient-dense and whole-food source of carbohydrates,” the researchers reported in the Journal of Applied Physiology. “Furthermore, they serve as a savory race fuel option when compared (with) the high sweetness of (carbohydrate) gels.”

To test their idea, researchers recruited 12 cyclists who had been training for years and were healthy. Each averaged 165 miles a week on their bicycles. Each also had to reach a specific aerobic fitness threshold, then complete a 120-minute cycling challenge and a subsequent time trial.

Each was assigned to a random group for the trial. One group consumed only water, one consumed a commercially available carbohydrate gel while the third was supplied an equivalent amount of carbohydrates from potato puree.

Their food intake for the 24 hours leading up to a repeat of the 120-minute cycling challenge was standardized. The challenge was designed to mimic typical race conditions. Researchers measured blood glucose, along with exercise intensity, core body temperature, gastric emptying and gastrointestinal symptoms throughout the 120 minute period. Lactate concentrations in the blood were also measured. This is a metabolic marker of intense exercise.

“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.”

Both the potato-fed and gel-fed groups were faster in the time trial and showed greater heart rate increases than the water-only group. Similar increases in plasma glucose concentrations were noted in both the potato-consuming and gel-consuming groups.

There is a “but” to this story, however. The group consuming the potatoes showed significantly more gastrointestinal distress, bloating, pain and flatulence than the other groups. Burd believes this is due to the larger volume of potatoes required to match the glucose provided by the gels.

“Nevertheless, average GI symptoms were lower than previous studies, indicating that both (carbohydrate) conditions were well-tolerated by the majority of the study’s cyclists,” the researchers wrote.

“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-fueling menus,” Burd said.

So while potato puree may provide the same boost in energy as carb gels, you may not enjoy the “other” effects. Unless, of course, your cycling could use a good “tail wind!” (Come on, you were thinking it!)

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Amadeo F. Salvador, Colleen F. McKenna, Rafael A. Alamilla, Ryan M. T. Cloud, Alexander R. Keeble, Adriana Miltko, Susannah E. Scaroni, Joseph W. Beals, Alexander V. Ulanov, Ryan N. Dilger, Laura L. Bauer, Elizabeth M. Broad, Nicholas A. Burd. Potato ingestion is as effective as carbohydrate gels to support prolonged cycling performance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2019

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