Essential Sports Nutrition


Why your sport nutrition product is not working for you.

As a sport dietitian, I receive a variety of sport nutrition products from companies to test out for taste, effectiveness and practicality. So guess who also gets to try out all types of sport nutrition products - Karel! Because Karel and I are firm believers in the effectiveness of sport nutrition products in training and racing, we have no trouble consuming safe, well-formulated, reputable engineered products to optimize our performance. Additionally, we don't just use sport nutrition for performance reasons but we also use sport nutrition products for health reasons, as fueling/hydrating your body properly during training and racing can protect your immune system and will keep your body functioning well during training/racing stress.

I remember not too long ago, having a conversation with Karel as he was reminiscing from his teenage cycling days, when he was racing at a national level in Europe.

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Karel was telling me all about all of the sport nutrition products back in the day and well, he didn't have much of a choice. There was one product that he had access to and it was called Iso (Isotonic). And at that time, it tasted horrible. Karel had to choke it down because it tasted so nasty. But he had no other options and he was told that it would help his performance so he did what any other performance-minded athlete would do - he drank the powdered drink during training and racing because he believed it would make him a better cyclist. 

Today, sport nutrition has come very far. We have all types of sport nutrition products and most of them taste pleasantly good and many use real food ingredients. Despite plenty of research demonstrating the effectiveness of consuming carbohydrates, fluids and electrolytes, in the proper concentration, during training and racing to delay fatigue, improve perceived effort and minimize excessive dehydration, athletes continue to struggle with the usage of sport nutrition products and sadly, there are still many athletes who refuse to consume sport nutrition products in training and racing because they feel they don't need it. 

For the purpose of this blog post, I'm assuming that most athletes understand the importance of consuming sport nutrition products during training and racing but there's a common struggle when it comes to the application of sport nutrition. In other words, just because you are consuming a sport nutrition product, this doesn't mean it is actually working for you.

To assist in your sport nutrition journey, I have a few reasons why your sport nutrition products may not be working for you so that you can make the necessary changes in your diet/fueling regime to help your body achieve athletic excellence. 

Gastric emptying
Just because you are consuming a sport nutrition product, this doesn't mean that the ingested beverage/product is being emptied from the stomach and absorbed in the small intestines. If you struggle with rapid fatigue, dizziness, dehydration, nausea, bloating, gas, abdominal cramping or low blood sugar, there's a good chance that the product(s) you are consuming is not being emptied from the stomach efficiently. Here are some reasons that could be affecting gastric emptying: 
  • Relying on a straw-based hydration system (sucking fluids) versus a bottle (squeezing the liquid into your mouth). The later is highly encouraged to optimize gastric emptying. 
  • Not drinking on a schedule - increased volume in the gut increases the rate of gastric emptying. 
  • Consuming too much energy density (high osmolality or high calorie), either from overconcentrated drinks (ex. multi-hour calorie bottles), a variety of sport nutrition products (ex. solid food, sport drink powder, gummies/chews, real food, etc.) or taking in a bolus of nutrition all at once without adequate water/sodium. 
  • Trying to fuel for an intensity/duration that is greater than what the body can digest and absorb per minute/hour. Less is more when it comes to caloric consumption to optimize gastric emptying but this also means that pacing is critical. 
  • Not planning stops to refill bottles can cause sport nutrition rationing, and then overconsumption of calories/water when you stop. Plan your stop before you need to stop. 
  • Poor skills when consuming sport nutrition when exercising (ex. bike handling skills or drinking from a flask in a hydration belt).
  • What you eat in the hours before a workout as well as the day before can affect digestion and gastric emptying, which may also prevent you from keeping up with your sport nutrition intake, regularly and comfortably, during training/racing. 
Flavor and consistency
You don't have to love your sport nutrition products but you do have to like them enough to tolerate them during training and racing. Taste bud fatigue is a common issue for athletes as it's easy to get tired of consuming the same flavor of a sport drink, workout after workout, or hour after hour, in training and on race day. But this doesn't mean to ditch sport nutrition the moment you get burnt out from the taste. Here are some reasons that could be affecting the flavor and consistency of your sport drink: 
  • Environmental conditions (ex. hot and humid temps) can make it difficult to consume sport nutrition products as your body will crave cold and light-tasting beverages over a thick, warm, factory-concocted drink. However, this doesn't mean to forgo your sport nutrition beverage and choose water instead. Make sure to bring water along with you in addition to your sport drinks, to use for cooling the body and for rinsing out the mouth (give your mouth a swish of water after sipping sport nutrition). Get comfortable drinking warmish fluids, especially if you are training for a long distance event - don't be a picky athlete as warm nutrition is better than no nutrition and yes, your nutrition will get warm during long training/racing. Certainly, when you can plan for cool sport nutrition drinks, those will be easier to tolerate. 
  • Try out and vary your flavors/products. The more variety you bring to your sport nutrition products, the less likely you will get burnt out (and the more comfortable you will be with having a plan B product in training and on race day). 
  • Avoid adding protein, caffeine, aminos and other extra ingredients to your sport drink if you are sensitive to different tastes/consistencies. Aim for the most basic ingredients - carbohydrates, electrolytes, water. 
  • Add in the occasional a tummy satisfier that compliments the sweetness of your sport drink. Lemon, spearmint, chocolate or peanut butter flavored solid food can excite your taste buds, making it easier for you to stay up with your well-formulated sport drinks. 
  • Not every natural flavor will appeal to you. Whereas you may love the flavor orange in one product, you may dislike the type of natural flavoring in another product.
If you are scared to consume sport nutrition products because you've been told to avoid all processed food or you you worry about the calories or sugar or you once had a bad experience with sport nutrition products in training or on race day in the past, there's a good chance that you have forbidden the usage of sport nutrition products in training and racing or you are trying to keep sport nutrition consumption to a minimum. Here are some reasons why your mind is keeping sport nutrition products from working for you: 
  • Your brain has a direct effect on the stomach. If you find yourself bloated, with an upset stomach or psyching yourself out when you consume sport nutrition, there's a good chance that intestinal distress is the cause or product of diet-based anxiety or stress. Work through your relationship with sport nutrition so that you can learn to appreciate and tolerate sport nutrition during training and racing. 
  • The reason why sport nutrition products are processed is because companies have come up with a way to make it easy for you to consume the nutrients/energy that you need, easily, regularly and safely during training and racing. If you are putting well-formulated sport nutrition products in the same category as a candy bar, you are overlooking the ingredient component of what makes sport nutrition products designed for athletes. 
  • Most athletes that I work with who express a constant struggle with sport nutrition, typically come from a place of not using sport nutrition products properly. Either the type of product, timing of product consumption or quantity was off, making the athlete believe that no type of sport nutrition product will work. Sport nutrition is a science and not all products are created equal. To optimize the efficacy of sport nutrition, the product must contain an appropriate amount of carbohydrates and electrolytes per amount of fluid (water) to empty from the gut and to support the needs of the body. You need to like the taste and consistency and you need to have the right mindset, knowing how to use the product and you have to use it regularly. This requires some trial and error and trust in the process but most athletes can learn to tolerate sport nutrition during training and racing but need some education and assistance from a sport dietitian who understands sport nutrition products. 
  • It's not just about sport nutrition. No amount of sport nutrition will help you optimize performance if your daily diet does not provide a solid foundation of calories, macro and micronutrients. Although it's common for many athletes to overconsume sport nutrition on race day and underconsume in training (thus never properly training the gut or building confidence with nutrition, not to mention sabotaging fitness in training from not using sport nutrition appropriately), many athletes struggle with sport nutrition during training because the daily diet is not well balanced or planned. This brings added confusion to sport nutrition because the daily diet is the culprit of training/racing related issues, not sport nutrition products. 
I like this category because after you investigate all of the possible reasons why your sport nutrition product is not working for you and you just can't seem to identify the clear answer, this is when you can say "I can't blame everything on nutrition". Sometimes, your sport nutrition product won't work for you and there will be no clear answer why. But then again, it may not be the product causing the issue. Here are some other reasons why you can't blame everything on your sport nutrition product:
-Poor diet/gut health
-Restless sleep
-Intensity/effort of the workout
-Excessive caffeine consumption
-Just an off-day

I hope that you found this information beneficial and hopefully you better understand why your sport nutrition product is not working for you and how to make some easy fixes. For additional help, I highly recommend to reach out to a board certified sport dietitian for personalized assistance, who advocates the use of sport nutrition products and specializes in your sport.