We’re always hearing about how to kick our bad sugar habits. One week its cutting them out completely, the next it’s “fine in fruits,” and other times we’re cheersing to free-for-all cheat days. For runners, however, many popular energy foods include sizable portions of sugar in their ingredients.
So does that mean we shouldn’t be eating them? Even if we put in 40 miles a week on runs? According to Sarah Cuff, a registered holistic sports nutritionist at Eat2Run.com, runners don’t have to necessarily skip those sugary products. In fact, Cuff says there’s a good time to indulge. “If you are going to consume sugar, during a run is the time to do it. However, even then it should be used strategically,” said Cuff.
Experts largely differ on just what and how much sugar you can consume. Some, like Cuff, advise many of their clients to avoid simple sugars because they can lead to health issues. Still, there are some complexities with the sweet crystalline substance. Those same simple sugars that can lead to too much fat are also great choices for endurance athletes logging long miles.
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“During exercise is perfectly acceptable, and really preferred, to consume high glycemic sugars,” said Robert Kunz MS, Vice President of science and technology at First Endurance. That’s why energy gels and chews are a staple of many athletes, and it’s also why sometimes ultramarathoners will guzzle from a 2-liter of soda while running. “When we are actually running, our bodies utilize the sugar immediately, converting it into energy,” Cuff said. “Unlike when we’re at rest and it’s not immediately pre or post-run, there’s a high chance it will be stored as fat.”
Before races or tough workouts, runners should look for low glycemic meals. This can include fructose, which is naturally found in fruits and vegetables. Fructose is low glycemic and won’t end with a sugar crash, Kunz said. In a study of cyclists who ate a low glycemic meal before time trials, performed faster than those who consumed a high-glycemic meal.
If you choose to eat and run, you’ll also need to remember that the body needs to absorb those carbohydrates for maximum performance, Kunz said. “This means for every 100 calories, you need 12 ounces of fluid,” he said. “Most make the mistake of consuming a 100 calorie gel and thinking they are delivering energy. If that gel is not absorbed, then it’s not delivering anything but a potential stomach issue down the road.”
But all that doesn’t mean runners can reach in the fridge for whatever they want, Cuff said. “Runners definitely don’t get a free pass to eat whatever they want just because they burned calories running,” she stated. “However, I still hear far too many runners talking about what they ‘deserve’ because they ran that day.”
Cuff says that large amounts of sugar can suppress the immune and cause inflammation that could later lead to chronic health problems. “After the run … I suggest reaching for natural sources, such as tart cherry juice, bananas or dates and berries, as well as rice, oats, potatoes and yams,” she said, adding that fruit and fruit juices are also good choices immediately after a run because they “refuel the depleted muscle and liver glycogen stores.”
Like Cuff, Kunz encourages athletes to choose fruits with natural sugars, adding that sugar doesn’t have to be “bad,” but when used right, those natural sugars can prime the body for the road or trails. “Eating very healthy will likely not alter your performance much over a few weeks, but can have dramatic impact and results over a few years and a lifetime,” he said. “Treat your body right and it will take care of you.”