Skip the energy gels: This savory food is just as good at boosting performance

"An approach doesn’t have to be too fancy."

cycling, gels, potatoes

A team of scientists at the University of Illinois discovered a new peak performance food that’s more at home during Thanksgiving dinner than it is on the roadside during the Tour De France. You may not like it, but potatoes are what peak performance looks like.

In a series of tests performed on a small sample of 12 highly trained cyclists, the team found that pureed russet potatoes were just as effective as mid-exercise snacks as energy gels. Their paper, published Thursday in the Journal of Applied Physiology, noted that there were no significant differences in performance during a two-hour cycling challenge and a time trial course when cyclists used pureed potatoes for energy, compared to when they used gels.

This study was funded by The Alliance for Potato Research & Education, a non-profit funded by the potato industry. And importantly, mid-race potato supplementation isn’t for everyone, especially when it comes to uncomfortable GI symptoms. After cycling for two hours of cycling using only potatoes for fuel, the participants reported higher levels of abdominal pain, bloating, and discomfort than when they used gels.

However, as lead study author Nicholas Burd, Ph.D., tells Inverse, his work is more about broadening our horizons when it comes to the mid-race menu. Gummies, gels, and drinks formulated in labs, he reasons, don’t have to be the only foods we consider to get through long workouts.

“Context is key and race fueling recipes will ultimately need to be tailored to an athletes preference,” he tells Inverse. “However, I think it’s relevant to show that an approach doesn’t have to be too ‘fancy’ and whole food based alternatives can work.”

cycling
During a two hour cycling test, potato puree imparted the same effects on performance as energy gels did, but resulted in worse GI symptoms 

Underneath the shiny, yet convenient packaging of an energy gel, are very simple ingredients. Usually, it’s just a source of carbohydrates that can be quickly utilized as energy during exercise. In this study, the carbohydrate dose of the potato supplementation and the gels were nearly identical: the potato puree had 15.2 grams of carbohydrates, whereas the gel had 15.5. There were also comparable levels of sugars between the two gels — though the potato had slightly more calories and fiber than the gels did.

Ultimately, if you break down the components, the mashed potato and the energy gels used in this study aren’t actually that different. So why turn to a potato when you could turn to a futuristic energy gel? If you ask Burd, it comes down to preference.

Some Long-distance runners are turning to plant-based diets to fuel themselves for energy or ethical reasons. Others, like Dean Karnazes, one of the world’s most successful ultra marathoners (he once ran 50 marathons in 50 days) , are just sick of gels and prefer “real food” alternatives.

“Gels and GUs are fine for shorter distances like marathons, but you can only eat so many gels and GUs,” Karnazes told Sports Illustrated in 2014. “After a while, you just want real food.”

In his paper, Burd calls that feeling “flavor fatigue” — the moment when elite athletes just get tired of eating the same thing over and over again, especially when flavors are sickeningly sweet.

“Generally, the high sweetness of sports gels can induce flavor fatigue and having a savory option to increase carbohydrate availability during exercise is pertinent,” Burd says. “If an athlete doesn’t want to eat during the later stages of a race, this can have detrimental impact on their race performance.”

energy gels, triathlon,
Energy gels may not be filled with special ingredients but they do offer convenient packaging. 

Flavor aside, research has also noted that sweet performance-enhancing foods do have a dental dark side. But ultimately, the precipitating factor is how these things impact performance. That’s why Burd’s study was intended to see if cyclists were happy using savory option during taxing exercise, and if their stomachs were up to the task.

In the experiment, each of the 12 cyclists participated in the two-hour cycling task and time trial three times. Each time, they either gulped down 60 grams of potato puree, two energy gels, or just drank water the whole time.

Again, both the potato and the gel imparted roughly equal performance benefits, which were superior to those provided by just the water alone. The potato supplementation did come at a cost: the uncomfortable GI symptoms that are enough to make anyone think twice. But it’s also true that some runners report having GI issues with gels or energy bars, especially those that contain fructose.

Still, Burd notes that the gels maintain one major advantage: the sleek packaging. Mashed potato, even if you can stomach it during a race, isn’t exactly designed to be consumed while ascending Alpe D’Huez in a peloton. For now, Burd admits, it’s likely that “concentrated gels and their associated convenience will still remain a component of a race fueling menu for athletes.”

But for the rest of us who are growing weary of sticky mid-race sweets, the potato puree offers a salient reminder that other options have po-tential.

Abstract: Carbohydrate (CHO) ingestion is an established strategy to improve endurance performance. Race fuels should not only sustain performance, but also be readily digested and absorbed. Potatoes are a whole-food based option that fulfills these criteria yet their impact on performance remains unexamined. We investigated the effects of potato purée ingestion during prolonged cycling on subsequent performance versus commercial CHO gel or a water-only condition. Twelve cyclists (70.7 ± 7.7 kg, 173 ± 8 cm, 31± 9 years, 22 ± 5.1 % body fat; mean ± SD) with average peak oxygen consumption (VO2PEAK)of 60.7 ± 9.0 mL/kg/min performed a 2 h cycling challenge (60-85%VO2PEAK) followed by a time trial (TT, 6kJ/kg body mass) while consuming potato, gel, or water in a randomized-crossover design. The race fuels were administered with U-[13C6]glucose for an indirect estimate of gastric emptying rate. Blood samples were collected throughout the trials. Blood glucose concentrations were higher (P<0.001) in potato and gel conditions when compared to water condition. Blood lactate concentrations were higher (P=0.001) after the TT completion in both CHO conditions when compared to water condition. TT performance was improved (P=0.032) in both potato (33.0 ± 4.5 min) and gel (33.0 ± 4.2 min) conditions when compared to the water condition (39.5 ± 7.9 min). Moreover, no difference was observed in TT performance between CHO conditions (P=1.00). In conclusion, potato and gel ingestion equally sustained blood glucose concentrations and TT performance. Our results support the effective use of potatoes to support race performance for trained cyclists.