Best Be­fore?

How sports nu­tri­tion has de­vel­oped over the last 50 years

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents -

Th­ese days, at­tempt­ing to run a marathon without drink­ing any­thing along the way would be de­fined as ei­ther an act of pure lu­nacy or a first-class at­tempt at self-sab­o­tage, yet that was the sta­tus quo un­til the 1960s. ‘Peo­ple thought that drink­ing cold bev­er­ages while run­ning would give you a stitch,’ says Amby Bur­foot, 1968 Bos­ton Marathon win­ner and RW ed­i­tor at large. As for eat­ing on the run? That was sim­ply un­think­able.

‘The con­cept of sports nu­tri­tion didn’t ex­ist as it does to­day,’ says Bill Gam­ber, the co­founder of en­ergy prod­uct com­pany Honey Stinger. He be­came so fam­ished dur­ing the Iron­man triathlons he raced in the 1980s that he would de­vour a whole chicken af­ter cross­ing the fin­ish line. It had been cooked, but still…

Since those poul­try-de­vour­ing days, sci­ence has helped run­ners un­der­stand the power of proper fu­elling and re­fu­elling, and to­day, sports nu­tri­tion has be­come a multi­bil­lion-pound in­ter­na­tional in­dus­try. While run­ners stick pas­sion­ately to their favourite brands, the prin­ci­ples are the same: sim­ple car­bo­hy­drates, elec­trolytes, caf­feine, carb-to-pro­tein ra­tio and pro­tein for re­cov­ery. Here’s a look at some ma­jor mile­stones – how they came to be and their con­tin­u­ing value to run­ners to­day.


Un­til the 1960s, ath­letes didn’t fully un­der­stand the im­por­tance of hy­dra­tion (aside from drink­ing water when they were thirsty). But then re­searcher Dr Robert Cade (a for­mer 4:20-miler) sug­gested a cock­tail of su­crose, glu­cose, sodium, potas­sium and phos­phate as a tonic to de­liver a com­pet­i­tive edge to ath­letes in hot weather. This mix­ture of sugar and elec­trolytes, soon called Ga­torade, af­ter the Florida Ga­tors Amer­i­can foot­ball team, on whom it was first tested, was a suc­cess. ‘The early ver­sion had too much sodium for run­ners,’ says Bur­foot, who par­tic­i­pated in a 1970 study, but for­mu­las were re­fined and the rest is run­ning his­tory.

TO­DAY’S TAKE ‘Carbs in­crease fluid ab­sorp­tion, keep you fo­cused and de­lay fa­tigue,’ says sports nu­tri­tion­ist Kim Lar­son. Drink up on runs that last more than 60 min­utes.

1978 COF­FEE

In the late 1970s, Dr David Cos­till (the first re­searcher to in­ves­ti­gate whether sports drinks ac­tu­ally worked) and others be­gan pub­lish­ing stud­ies sug­gest­ing that caf­feine could boost en­durance. Marathon­ers re­sponded by drink­ing cof­fee be­fore races. Now you can do more than reach for the cafetière, with a cor­nu­copia of caf­feinated sports nu­tri­tion prod­ucts de­liv­er­ing a kick from drinks, chews and gels.

TO­DAY’S TAKE A wealth of re­cent stud­ies con­firm that caf­feine keeps your mind sharp, re­leases free fatty acids for en­ergy (thus spar­ing your glyco­gen stores and help­ing you run longer), makes hard ef­forts feel eas­ier and, con­trary to pre­vi­ously re­ceived ‘wis­dom’, isn’t a di­uretic. Some run­ners drink cof­fee for a boost only on race days, but you should try it first in train­ing, so you’ll know how it af­fects you.


In the 1980s, top-ranked Cana­dian marathoner Brian Maxwell be­gan to ex­per­i­ment with por­ta­ble carb sources that could sus­tain his blood­sugar lev­els in the later stages of races. He and his part­ner started dis­tribut­ing logs of oat bran, sugar and pro­tein, which be­came pop­u­lar first with Tour de France cy­clists. Com­peti­tors soon fol­lowed Maxwell’s Power­bar, and now scores of brands tar­get ev­ery­one from ul­tra un­ners to desk jock­eys.

TO­DAY’S TAKE There’s now a bar for every run­ner, from ve­gan to Pa­leo. There are some brands, such as KIND, that em­pha­sise whole foods. When con­sid­er­ing a bar, check the sugar con­tent, as some are just sweet treats mas­querad­ing as sports nu­tri­tion. Also con­sider tim­ing: be­fore your run, look for a bar that’s high in carbs, mod­er­ate in pro­tein and low in fat, says Lar­son. Postrun, go for a bar that’s high in carbs and pro­tein.


Back in the day, run­ners sucked on pack­ets of honey for a quick sugar hit dur­ing races. By the late 1980s, the UK and New Zealand led the way in gooey proto-gel for­mu­la­tions that be­came pop­u­lar with run­ners. Then, in 1993, run­ner and chemist Bill Vaughan for­mu­lated a por­ta­ble fuel that would re­lease its en­ergy faster than ex­ist­ing bars. His blend of com­plex and sim­ple sug­ars with amino acids (the build­ing blocks of pro­tein) gave en­durance run­ners a boost – GU had ar­rived.

TO­DAY’S TAKE Gels are easy to carry and have the per­fect amount of calo­ries and carbs. Take with water to help di­lute the sugar con­cen­tra­tion, says ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­o­gist and marathon coach Patti Finke. Also, ex­per­i­ment in train­ing to see which gels and gel-con­sum­ing strate­gies work best for you to help min­imise the risk of nasty race-day sur­prises.


Amid the pro­lif­er­a­tion of for­mu­lated nu­tri­tion, re­searchers de­liv­ered some sur­pris­ing news: cow’s milk of­fered the ideal re­cov­ery for­mula, es­pe­cially if a lit­tle cho­co­late syrup was added. Re­search in the In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Sport Nu­tri­tion and Ex­er­cise Me­tab­o­lism found pro­tein-rich cho­co­late milk was bet­ter at pro­mot­ing re­cov­ery than prod­ucts such as Ga­torade. The news up­graded run­ners’ guilty plea­sure to a su­per­food and it sug­gested that whole­foods could be just as ben­e­fi­cial as lab cre­ations. Cho­co­late milk has the 4:1 ra­tio of carbs to pro­tein that’s op­ti­mal for re­cov­ery, and it’s also cheap, hy­drat­ing (pro­vid­ing flu­ids and elec­trolytes) and tasty.

TO­DAY’S TAKE Sub­se­quent stud­ies have backed the ben­e­fi­cial prop­er­ties of this clas­sic drink: it re­plen­ishes carb stores and re­pairs mus­cles. Aim for around 225ml within 30 min­utes postrun.


Run­ners’ grow­ing pref­er­ence for un­pro­cessed foods – and an urge to get clean af­ter our col­lec­tive 20-year sugar ben­der – helped pro­pel the Pa­leo diet and other low-carb eat­ing strate­gies into pop­u­lar­ity. Sports foods and drinks started in­clud­ing var­i­ous amounts of pro­tein, and run­ners took to snack­ing on beef and bi­son.

TO­DAY’S TAKE We have weaned our­selves off to­tal carb de­pen­dency but, says Lar­son, we should be aware that midrun pro­tein can cause gas­troin­testi­nal dis­tress. Re­cent re­search has con­firmed that pro­tein is most ben­e­fi­cial when it’s dis­trib­uted through­out the day, rather than taken con­cen­trated in one dose. Fol­low a re­cov­ery meal with a snack of jerky sev­eral hours later. Or, af­ter a long run or marathon, eat two or more pro­tein-rich meals. ‘The re­cov­ery process af­ter hard ef­forts lasts for 24-48 hours,’ says Lar­son.

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