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Sugar: How and When to Use it

By Adam Galuszka
February 12, 2015

Editor's note: As you may recall, we published our 8 rules for athletes in 2015 and recommend that you only use sugar situationally, when your workouts require it. We've also worked closely with Kevin Sprouse, the Cannondale-Garmin Pro Cycling team doctor on this article, which is essentially a how to for endurance athletes that don't want to use sugar in training. At the risk of making your head spin, we want to make it clear that sugar CAN be used to your benefit. If you're an endurance athlete who is training 15+ hours per week, you will probably BENEFIT from using sugar at the right times. With that, we transition to our next blog post from our registered performance dietician Amanda Gilles. Sugar: how and when to use it.

We hear something everyday about how bad sugar is. In most contexts, these sugary rumors are true. However, there is a time and place for athletes to use sugar.

Sugar and exercise are a dynamic duo. Simple sugars have the ability to be quickly absorbed and utilized by our body, making them the ideal fuel source.  Ideally you want to avoid protein and fats before, and during, exercise. These two macronutrients slow the absorption of carbohydrate (simple sugars), and can hinder performance.

Sugar before exercise:

I like to call this “topping off your energy tank”.  Grabbing a carbohydrate based snack before exercise makes sure your muscle and liver glycogen stores are fully loaded, and ready to work!  A pre-workout snack will reduce hunger and improve athletic performance. .

If you consume 30g -60g of easy to digest carbs, 30-45 minutes before exercise, you will improve performance.

Here are some excellent snacks to fuel your workout:

Sugar during exercise:

During long workouts, athletes can burn through all of their stored glycogen and ‘bonk’ pretty easily.  However, if you consume a bit of sugar during your sweat session, your muscles will keep working more efficiently.

Utilizing simple sugars, during exercise that lasts at least 1 hour or longer, can improve performance by maintaining glycogen levels. Fueling during your workout can help delay fatigue and improve endurance.

It is important for athletes to find a happy balance between consuming enough simple sugars to provide extra energy, but not so much as to cause gastrointestinal (GI) issues. Taking in too much carbohydrate, especially highly concentrated sugar solutions, while exercising can cause stomach cramping. Consuming 20-25g (80-100 calories) of carbohydrate per hour is enough to provide an energy boost and reduce your risk of a stomach ache.

What products do we recommend you consume during your workout? Research shows absorption of simple sugars is best when consuming a mixture. For example a product containing glucose and fructose, will provide better results compared to using glucose or fructose by itself.  Most chews, gels, and sports beverages contain a mixture of simple sugars.

Try one of these snacks to help you finish a workout strong:

Sugar After exercise

Sugar after exercise can be a good thing too. When under high training loads, be sure to take advantage of the “The Window of Opportunity” to refuel glycogen quickly. This window is crucial to rapidly restore glycogen stores within muscles. Recovery nutrition is especially important for athletes engaged in daily hard training, or tournament events. Refueling after a workout can reduce muscle soreness, increase lean muscle mass, and aid in improving athletic performance.

Look for a snack or beverage with a carb to protein ratio of around 4:1, for an optimal recovery snack.  Intensity and duration, as well as the size of the athlete, will influence the quantity of this post-exercise snack.

Some good options to consider:

When used appropriately, sugar can be an athlete’s best friend.  Utilizing these fueling techniques can help make a good athlete, great!  However, just remember, when not fueling for peak athletic performance, keep your sugar intake to a minimum!