These days, attempting to run a marathon without drinking anything along the way would be defined as either an act of pure lunacy or a first-class attempt at self-sabotage, yet that was the status quo until the 1960s. ‘People thought that drinking cold beverages while running would give you a stitch,’ says Amby Burfoot, 1968 Boston Marathon winner and RW editor at large. As for eating on the run? That was simply unthinkable. ‘The concept of sports nutrition didn’t exist as it does today,’ says Bill Gamber, the cofounder of energy product company Honey Stinger. He became so famished during the Ironman triathlons he raced in the 1980s that he would devour a whole chicken after crossing the finish line. It had been cooked, but still… Since those poultry-devouring days, science has helped runners understand the power of proper fuelling and refuelling, and today, sports nutrition has become a multibillion-pound international industry. While runners stick passionately to their favourite brands, the principles are the same: simple carbohydrates, electrolytes, caffeine, carb-to-protein ratio and protein for recovery. Here’s a look at some major milestones – how they came to be and their continuing value to runners today.
1965: Sports drinks
Until the 1960s, athletes didn’t fully understand the importance of hydration (aside from drinking water when they were thirsty). But then researcher Dr Robert Cade (a former 4:20-miler) suggested a cocktail of sucrose, glucose, sodium, potassium and phosphate as a tonic to deliver a competitive edge to athletes in hot weather. This mixture of sugar and electrolytes, soon called Gatorade, after the Florida Gators American football team, on whom it was first tested, was a success. ‘The early version had too much sodium for runners,’ says Burfoot, who participated in a 1970 study, but formulas were refined and the rest is running history.
Today's take: ‘Carbs increase fluid absorption, keep you focused and delay fatigue,’ says sports nutritionist Kim Larson. Drink up on runs that last more than 60 minutes.
READ: Sports drinks vs. energy gels
In the late 1970s, Dr David Costill (the first researcher to investigate whether sports drinks actually worked) and others began publishing studies suggesting that caffeine could boost endurance. Marathoners responded by drinking coffee before races. Now you can do more than reach for the cafetière, with a cornucopia of caffeinated sports nutrition products delivering a kick from drinks, chews and gels.
Today's take: A wealth of recent studies confirm that caffeine keeps your mind sharp, releases free fatty acids for energy (thus sparing your glycogen stores and helping you run longer) and makes hard efforts feel easier. Some runners drink coffee for a boost only on race days, but you should try it first in training, so you’ll know how it affects you.
READ: 8 reasons coffee is good for runners
1986: Energy bars
In the 1980s, top-ranked Canadian marathoner Brian Maxwell began to experiment with portable carb sources that could sustain his blood-sugar levels in the later stages of races. He and his partner started distributing logs of oat bran, sugar and protein, which became popular first with Tour de France cyclists. Competitors soon followed Maxwell’s PowerBar, and now scores of brands target everyone from ultra runners to desk jockeys.
Today's take: There’s now a bar for every runner, from vegan to Paleo. There are some brands, such as KIND, that emphasise whole foods. When considering a bar, check the sugar content, as some are just sweet treats masquerading as sports nutrition. Also consider timing: before your run, look for a bar that’s high in carbs, moderate in protein and low in fat, says Larson. Post-run, go for a bar that’s high in carbs and protein.
1993: Energy gels
Back in the day, runners sucked on packets of honey for a quick sugar hit during races. By the late 1980s, the UK and New Zealand led the way in gooey proto-gel formulations that became popular with runners. Then, in 1993, runner and chemist Bill Vaughan formulated a portable fuel that would release its energy faster than existing bars. His blend of complex and simple sugars with amino acids (the building blocks of protein) gave endurance runners a boost – GU had arrived.
Today's take: Gels are easy to carry and have the perfect amount of calories and carbs. Take with water to help dilute the sugar concentration, says exercise physiologist and marathon coach Patti Finke. Also, experiment in training to see which gels and gel-consuming strategies work best for you to help minimise the risk of nasty race-day surprises.
READ: Should you grab a gel, energy bar or sports drink?
2006: Chocolate milk
Amid the proliferation of formulated nutrition, researchers delivered some surprising news: cow’s milk offered the ideal recovery formula, especially if a little chocolate syrup was added. Research in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found protein-rich chocolate milk was better at promoting recovery than products such as Gatorade. The news upgraded runners’ guilty pleasure to a superfood and it suggested that wholefoods could be just as beneficial as lab creations. Chocolate milk has the 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein that’s optimal for recovery, and it’s also cheap, hydrating (providing fluids and electrolytes) and tasty.
Today's take: Subsequent studies have backed the beneficial properties of this classic drink: it replenishes carb stores and repairs muscles. Aim for around 225ml within30 minutes post-run.
2012: Beef jerky
Runners’ growing preference for unprocessed foods – and an urge to get clean after our collective 20-year sugar bender – helped propel the Paleo diet and other low-carb eating strategies into popularity. Sports foods and drinks started including various amounts of protein, and runners took to snacking on beef and bison.
Today's take: We have weaned ourselves off total carb dependency but, says Larson, we should be aware that mid-run protein can cause gastrointestinal distress. Recent research has confirmed that protein is most beneficial when it’s distributed throughout the day, rather than taken concentrated in one dose. Follow a recovery meal with a snack of jerky several hours later. Or, after a long run or marathon, eat two or more protein-rich meals. ‘The recovery process after hard efforts lasts for 24-48 hours,’ says Larson.
Illustrations by Andrew Joyce