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This is sugar. Sweet, sticky, syrupy, goodness. A delight to our taste buds… yet the bane of our existence.

Or is it?

Instead of swearing off the sweet stuff, let’s examine sugar from an objective lens. C6H12O6 , also known as glucose, is our body’s preferred source of energy. And not just during exercise. Even at rest, our brain requires around 130g of glucose per day just to function.

Where does glucose come from?

All carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars, called monosaccharides, before being absorbed into the body. Glucose is one such monosaccharide.

But not all carbohydrates are created equal. Some exist in more complex forms, and require digestion to break down into simple sugars. These types of carbohydrates are mostly found as part of whole foods, including vegetables and whole grains.

Other forms of carbohydrate, such as refined sugar, are already simple sugars. The difference between simple and complex carbohydrates is how quickly they are broken down, digested and absorbed into the blood stream.

Isn’t sugar bad for you? What about “natural” sugar?

Sugar isn’t bad for you. Quantity of sugar is the real problem. Convenience food is everywhere—in gas stations, shopping malls, movie theaters, schools and checkout stands—and it is chock full of sugar, more than what’s healthy to eat.

From an athlete’s perspective, there is no reason to avoid sugar. Yes, it’s important to eat healthy and avoid processed foods. At rest, we want to emphasize complex carbohydrates as part of a mixed-nutrient meal. Foods such as dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes and quinoa take time to be digested, and enter the blood stream slowly. This is ideal at rest because it leads to a gentler rise in blood glucose, maintaining satiety for longer.

During activity, though, we don’t want to consume foods that take time to digest. We want to consume something that will get into our body quickly and provide energy. Before, during and after activity, the body needs glucose, and simple carbohydrates are the best way to meet that need.

A common misconception is that natural sugars, like maple syrup, honey and dates, are healthier. This is false. Don’t fall prey to these types of marketing ploys. Instead, focus on consuming quality, real foods during meals and using simple sugars immediately surrounding a workout.

Use sugar to your advantage

The ideal amount of sugar to consume before an activity depends on a few variables including gender, body size and duration of the activity. Instead of trying to calculate exact amounts, just eat something before going for a run.

Before you run.

Starting off with some available blood glucose results in a higher-quality workout, decreased recovery time and gut adaptations to promote fuel use during racing. The pre-run fuel should be a mix of simple carbohydrates along with a little fat and protein to keep you satiated. 

Some good options

1. Banana + nut butter

2. Oatmeal topped with 1 tbsp nuts and a drizzle of maple syrup

3. Toast with avocado

4. Yogurt topped with nuts + berries

5. Quinoa or rice porridge

6. Slice of bread with jam + cheese

7.  Sweet potatoes baked in coconut oil and sprinkled with cinnamon

While you run

If you’ll be out longer than 90 to 120 minutes, it’s a good idea to take in sugar during your run. Since running slows your digestion, ingesting something that is easy to absorb is important. Ideal fuel choices include gels, sports drinks and gummy candies.

The amount of sugar intake should be somewhere around 200 to 300 calories/hour, with about 60g to 90g carbohydrate (both grams and calories matter—the same amount of sugar over a greater number of calories may be harder to digest). Again, this depends on a number of factors, so just aim to fuel consistently over the run, taking in fuel every 20 to 30 minutes. It’s O.K. to get in fewer calories during a training run, but during a race, aiming for 200 to 300 calories per hour of simple sugars will prevent a decline in blood glucose and subsequent fatigue.

However, when running for a prolonged period of time, palate fatigue can set in, making it difficult to get down another gel or sports drink. Mix up the texture and flavor of the fuels you are consuming. Alternate with savory fuel packs, such as those made by Clif Bar. This strategy keeps your taste buds happy and looking forward to the next flavor.

Some good options

1. Gels

2. Blocks/chews

3. Sports drink

4. Candy

5. Fruit snacks

6. Sweet potatoes

7. White rice

8. Tortilla spread with Nutella

After you run

You’ve probably heard that protein is important post-run. Actually it’s the carbohydrates that aid in recovery immediately after exercise. Consuming carbohydrates within 30 to 40 minutes of your run will resynthesize muscle glycogen stores and prepare for the next activity. A little protein is still advised to begin repairing muscle damage. This could be in the form of recovery sports drink, yogurt, PB&J or chocolate milk.

Remember that nutrition is not black and white. There is a lot of room for individual preference. The best way to find your ideal fuel is to try out different options to see what feels best. Just don’t be afraid of sugar. Strategically consuming it in the time immediately surrounding a run is actually beneficial.

Some good options

1. Chocolate milk

2. Recovery sports drink made with milk of choice

3. Yogurt

4. Smoothie made with milk of choice + frozen berries

5. Fruit, such as apple or banana

6. Popsicle

7. Homemade banana bread

Stephanie’s Favorite Banana Bread Recipe

2 ripe bananas, mashed

2 c rolled oats, processed

into flour

1/3 c coconut oil, melted

2 eggs

½ c honey

½ c milk

½ t turmeric

½ t cinnamon

½ t sea salt

1   t baking soda

½ t baking powder

1/3 c walnuts, chopped

1/3 c mini chocolate chips

Pre-heat oven to 350-degrees.  Process oats in a blender until they resemble a fine flour. Add oat flour to a large mixing bowl along with the rest of the dry ingredients.

In a separate bowl, combine the bananas, coconut oil, honey, eggs and milk. Whisk together and gradually stir into the dry ingredients. Fold in the walnuts and chocolate chips. Bake for 50 min. or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

The author has a PhD in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition. She can often be found on the trails in Bend, Oregon, with her dog.

This article originally appeared in the March, 2018 issue of Trail Runner Magazine.

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