Fueling for 21st Century Performance

RunnerWhen I was a high school cross country runner, I remember our coaches always provided us with watered down Gatorade at our meets. It tasted as weak as it sounds. And honestly, I couldn’t tell that it made any difference in how well I ran.

Once I got into college and started studying sports science, one of the areas of the field that was most interesting to me was that of sports nutrition. Being the hard worker that I was, I quickly learned and memorized that carbohydrates were the key to athletic performance, particularly in aerobic, endurance based events. The surety with which I held onto this principle of sports performance largely went unchallenged until five years ago when I started digging into my own specific genetics as they related to my health and performance.

When I learned that for the sake of my health and longevity I would benefit greatly from following a lower carbohydrate diet, one of the questions I had soon there after was how would I maintain my athletic performance without fueling my body with carbohydrates? Again going back to the books, I discovered that my previous “knowledge” about sports performance and nutrition was incomplete at best and outdated. For those of you who are ready to check out on this article, I am not here to defend a low or zero-carbohydrate diet for endurance athletes. I do not believe that carbohydrates are evil.

What is problematic, for an endurance athlete, is that it is impossible to fuel yourself with the appropriate level of carbohydrates to maintain athletic performance for longer than an hour. It’s also probably not-I’ll explain further in a minute, hold on-a good idea to cram your pie hole with carbohydrates to train yourself for or compete in endurance events.

A Quick Physiology Primer

ATP (Adenine Tri-Phosphate) is the energy transporter used for muscle contractions. There are three ways we can get ATP where it needs to go for muscle contractions:

  1. The Creatine-Phosphate System (for 10-30 second efforts)
  2. The Anaerobic system (up to 4 minute efforts, requires glycogen)
  3. The Aerobic System (4-minute or longer efforts, requires glycogen or fatty acids)

Glycogen, referenced in the list above, is the stored form of glucose, aka “blood sugar”, and is found in the liver and skeletal muscles. The liver can store up to 120 grams (480 calories) of glycogen that can be released into the bloodstream while muscle can store up to 350 grams (1,400 calories) of glycogen that can only be used in the muscle.

An average 175-pound man has about 26 pounds (100,000 calories) of adipose (fat tissue). If this same man is running at about an effort of 70% of his VO to Max, he will burn 750 calories per-hour.

The stomach can absorb no more than 1 gram of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per hour. For our 175-pound runner, that means he can’t absorb more than 79 grams (316 calories per-hour). This is well below what he needs to fuel his muscles and liver.

The other problem encountered with carbohydrate fueling during aerobic activity is that the dosing of carbohydrates will quickly raise blood insulin and blood glucose levels. This phenomenon is immediately followed by a rapid decrease as the body tries to first replenish the depleted glycogen stores. And until your glycogen stores are topped off your muscles will lack the fuel to keep you going. Ever heard of the “bonk”? This is the physiology behind it.

This problem goes even deeper as when our body’s insulin level is high it can’t break down stored body fat-which should be available for use during endurance training and competition-into fatty acids to be used as energy.

Why Carbohydrate/Electrolyte Drinks Don’t Work

Most commercial carbohydrate drinks contain between 5% and 8% carbohydrate, which would provide between 135 and 175 cal per hour. Remember, we need around 750 cal per hour for 175-pound runner, so we’re still coming up short.

These drinks call several other problems too including:

  1. High osmolality. What this means is that it takes longer for the drink to get out of the stomach, which increases stress on the G.I. system and limits the amount of carbs you can consume
  2. A rapid increase in blood glucose upon ingestion. This increases the potential for rebound hypoglycemia or quick drop in blood sugar, which leads to the need for frequent dosing, which leads to more G.I. stress.
  3. A rapid increase in insulin levels. As previously mentioned, this will block our bodies ability to access stored fat, increase our reliance on glucose, and over a longer period of time create negative impacts on our general health and body composition.

Is There An Alternative?

So basically what we’re looking for is the perfect carbohydrate. One that you can ingest immediately but releases slowly into your body, doesn’t stimulate insulin and is fully absorbed.

Enter Superstarch

Superstarch, also known as “Hydrothermally Modified Starch” or “Time-Released Glucose” was first developed to treat children with a rare genetic disease called Glycogen Storage Disease. These kiddos are unable to store glycogen in their liver or muscles, which requires them to be dosed nearly around the clock by IV or an oral solution to keep their blood sugar levels normal.

What the developers of Superstarch eventually realized was that their product also solved the problem of carbohydrate fueling for the endurance athlete. Their research demonstrated that super starch has very low osmolality, which creates very low gastric pressure, rapidly goes through the G.I. system, and is semi-resistant to digestion but fully absorbed. The researchers also observed a minimal insulin response and that fats were oxidized at a much higher level with Superstarch when compared to a traditional carbohydrate drink.

Today you can find super starch in a product called Generation UCAN (we get no compensation for your link click). There are several different varieties of this product that contain only Superstarch or Superstarch with protein. Most folks will need one to two packages for a 1 to 2 hour endurance event. Superstarch can also be beneficial for an athlete competing in short duration event or training.

Virtually everyone needs some contribution of glycogen with athletic performance. Sparing glycogen, which is stored in a limited amount in our body, is vital. You do have a choice when it comes to what your body uses for fuel. You can live a low carbohydrate lifestyle and still perform at your peak athletically. Superstarch can give you the fuel you need to keep going.

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