Why is sugar ‘nutritious’ for runners?

It’s a question I am regularly asked – what should I do about nutrition? What should I eat and drink during my training and races? How many gels should I take? I am becoming more and more disheartened by sports ‘nutrition’ and the vast array of products that are sold to us runners as being necessary to run better and sometimes, to run at all.

Firstly, let me clarify what I mean by sports ‘nutrition’ products. I mean things like bottles of Lucozade and gels, such as PowerBar and SIS. Yes those products that, although marketed as being critical to get the best out of your performance in a race and to not collapse and die during a training run, are pretty much just sugar. Yes sugar. You know the stuff that if you’re not a runner, everyone tells you to eat less of? Yes that’s right. The stuff to blame for the majority of the population being obese. The stuff that has minimal health benefits whatsoever and is certainly not full of nutrition.

I am loving the latest campaign from a public health collaboration in the north west. GULP, which stands for Give Up Loving Pop, is a controversial campaign trying to remind us that sugar and, in particular, sugary drinks are bad. For once, I love their fairly unsubstantiated statistical claim that ‘Drinking one can of sugary pop per day increases your risk of dying from heart disease by a third.’ I’m not entirely sure how they came to that conclusion, but for once I don’t care. There are so many other unsubstantiated claims out there, that why not add one to the mix that actually has a positive effect. And I don’t care because even if they are bending the truth a little, the crux of it is surely still correct – sugary drinks are not good for you.

The GULP campaign is really trying to target children and young people, but there is no reason why this should not apply to adults too. Because surely sugary drinks are not all that good for anyone are they? Oh yes, apart from sports people, when they come in a sporty packaging or a gel form, and your body is drained of all resources. Really? Now, I’ll readily admit that I am not a qualified nutritionist. I like to think I know a fair bit about nutrition (perhaps even more than the bods at Lucozade), but I’m happy to be challenged on this next point by someone more qualified than me. It’s controversial, I know, but if we need to eat or drink during our runs and races, wouldn’t we be better off eating something that has some nutrition in it? How about some dates, or one of my lovely homemade flapjacks, full of magnesium filled pumpkin seeds and potassium filled banana (although admittedly with a bit of sugar in them too as I haven’t yet figured out how to stop them falling apart without it….I digress). Or is it really the case that pure sugar, without any real vitamins or minerals is better?

If I’m wrong, then sorry for this post. But if not, then maybe it’s time to start getting a bit more creative with our sports nutrition and start experimenting with foods that our a bit less easy to hold and maybe a bit messier to eat on a run (although as I currently live with a one and a two year old, my idea of mess is probably slightly different to yours…), but at least they might be a bit more healthy too.?

Anyone for a date and pumpkin seed butter sandwich. I’ll let you know when I’ve gone into business with my healthy homemade flapjacks too, in convenient gel packs, so you can eat them on the go…

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