Legal Nutritional Supplements for Improving Endurance Performance

Recent research has shown us that a number of legal nutritional strategies enhance endurance sports drinks and gelsperformance. These include training on low carbohydrates but racing on high carbs; carb loading before racing; using sports drinks, gels or energy bars during racing; and using caffeine and sodium bicarbonate in events lasting between one and seven minutes. While many supplements are marketed to enhance endurance performance, the research evidence cast a shadow of them. See:

Masters athletes love PBs and competing hard and fair. We are always looking for an edge to beat our previous best times, our mates, or those ‘enemies’ we line up against. Sport science research over many years has shown us that the following nutritional strategies help boost our performance in endurance events:

1. Train-Low-Compete High. Recent research is highlighting that endurance training in a carbohydrate-depleted state might improve our ability to use fat as a fuel during racing as well as possibly improving or maintaining endurance performance when compared to training in a carbohydrate loaded state. British and Australian sport scientists trained young well-trained cyclists and triathletes for three weeks with one group doing typical endurance training going hard one day and easy the next and another group every second day doing the same training as group one but in one day with a day off in between training sessions. After three weeks of training, both groups improved their one-hour cycling performance equally by 10%. However, the carb-depleted group who trained twice in the one day every second day had better fat burning capacity as measured by an analysis of their muscle chemistry. This might suggest they will do better in long endurance events where fat burning is a priority to preserve carb supplies in muscles.

2. Carbohydrate Loading Before Events. It’s long been known that the higher we can get our muscle and liver (a carb reservoir) stores, the better our endurance performance. This is crucial for not only swimmers, cyclists, runners, triathletes, and cross-country skiers, but team sport athletes, rowers, kayakists and canoeists who have to back-up for many events in a short-period. Thus, hitting the high carbs the three days before a major event is crucial, with or without the depletion period (high fat/protein) in the three days before the carb-loading days.

3. Carbohydrate Drinks, Gels and Energy Bars During Events. It’s long been known taking carbs in during events can enhance endurance performance lasting longer than one hour. The longer the event, the more important it becomes because of the limited muscle, liver and blood stores we have of carbs. Recent research has even shown that in events about an hour long, even rinsing the mouth with sports drinks and not drinking it can help. So what type of carb (glucose, fructose, sucrose, galactose, maltose, maltodextrin, should be in the drinks, gels or bars? Glucose is used at about 1 gram per minute whereas fructose (fruit sugar) and galactose (dairy food sugar) are used at much slower rates because the they have to be turned into glucose in the liver before then being transported to muscles as blood glucose. Maltose, sucrose and maltodextrin have rates similar to glucose. Recent research has shown that endurance cycling can improve significantly when the types of carbs are mixed in a drink or a gel with the best combination appearing to be glucose and fructose. Moreover, studies have shown that this combination also reduces gut upsets and increase fluid absorption as well – all good news for endurance athletes.

4. Caffeine. Research as consistently found that caffeine can enhance endurance performance – as long as it is taken in dosages of between 3-9 milligrams per kilogram of your body weight (one No Doz tablet contains 100 mg of caffeine) and about 45-60 minutes before the event. The longer the event, the greater the effect. Recent Australian research has suggested that adding or using caffeine with carbohydrate drinks can also increase the uptake and use of carbohydrates (now I know why that coke at the bakery 60 km into a 110 km bike ride works!!). Especially in non-users, caffeine in high doses can lead to gut upsets, headaches, lack of sleep, and increased pulse rates. Recent research has also shown that taking in moderate amounts of caffeine before and during exercise does not lead to increased urine loss.

5. Sodium Bicarbonate. Sodium bicarbonate and sodium citrate are alkalis and thus buffer or reduce the effects of acids such as lactic acid that is produced in high levels during events between 1 and 7 minutes such as rowing, cycling pursuit events, and middle-distance run and swim events. Intakes of 200-300 mg per kilogram of body weight taken in the 1- 2 hours before an event and mixed with low energy (diet) cordial to remove the taste appear to benefit performance and not lead to gut upsets.

The bottom line – try these things for yourself. If it works, hold onto it. If it doesn’t, go back to the drawing board. Check out: