If you’re an endurance athlete who’s spent months trying to find just the right combination of powders, potions, energy bars, beans, blocks, and gels, then you may want to sit down for this: You’re doing it all wrong. “The biggest nutrition mistake endurance athletes make is believing that engineered food is better for performance than real or natural food,” says sports physiologist Allen Lim, PhD, who’s worked with Lance Armstrong and many other top professional cyclists.
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Lim made a name for himself by the innovative—and often eccentric—ways he applied research to exercise science. Especially in the area of nutrition. When he realized that a large number of his athletes were suffering from gastrointestinal distress (often referred to as “gut rot”) after eating packaged performance products, he didn’t go in search of new brands, he made his own—from scratch. Suddenly, instead of carrying gels in their jersey pockets, his riders were reaching for boiled potatoes and homemade rice cakes. Last year Lim founded Skratch Labs, a company by which to sell his recipes and drink mixes. We caught up with him to find out why the conventional Kool-Aid we’ve all been sipping may actually be sabotaging our performance.
1. Semi-solid food does more harm than good.
"Most of these highly concentrated carbohydrate solutions are designed to bypass normal digestion in the mouth and stomach and enter the small intestine quickly where nutrients and water are normally absorbed into the body. While a good idea in theory, the reality is that when you get a rapid and immediate influx of a highly concentrated liquid into your small intestine, water from your body needs to be transported there to dilute all that crap before it can be reabsorbed. You're effectively dehydrating your body, which leads to the bloating, stomach upset, and gut rot that many athletes experience."
2. Your body was designed to digest real food.
"Real food is first chewed in the mouth where digestive enzymes and physical force break the food down. It then enters the stomach where that bolus is further digested by acid to form something called chyme that slowly trickles into the small intestine where the nutrients can be actively transported into the body to provide the energy needed for prolonged exercise. This normal process of digestion is like having a stoplight at a freeway entrance. If you bypass it, food floods the ‘highway’ causing a big traffic jam."
3. You can’t sip proper nutrition.
"Many people think they can use liquid calories as a substitute for solid calories. But if your sports drink is 'thicker' than your blood, the osmotic pressure created by that thicker sports drink will cause water to passively draw out of your blood and into your belly before those calories are reabsorbed, again dehydrating and bloating you. It’s like having a leak on a boat with pumps that just can't keep up."
4. Sodium is your friend.
"When it comes to hydration, you need to replace water and electrolytes. (Search: What are electrolytes?) In fact, the World Health Organization defines dehydration as the loss of both water and salts like sodium and potassium. Likewise, rehydration is defined as the replacement of both fluids and electrolytes. Most drink mixes have too much sugar and not enough sodium. The average content in a half liter of sweat is 200 to 500 mg, but the average sports drink only contains 100 mg of sodium per half-liter."
5. There are no quick fixes.
“I think that cheating and doping culture is about athletes not being able to train right, eat right, and take care of themselves. It makes me really, really angry. The same [short-cut mentality] is being sold to people by the sports nutrition industry. That’s why we started Skratch Labs. It’s not about sports nutrition. It’s about active nourishment. It’s about taking care of the whole entire person.”