As it turned out, father knew best...
When I trained at the track in secondary school, my dad considered it his duty to make sure I never trained or raced on an empty fuel tank. One of his favourite pre-race traditions was to have me gulp a tablespoon of honey minutes before the starting gun fired. And it worked well for me, even if my tongue was perpetually stuck to the roof of my mouth. Later, at university, my physiology textbooks suggested that eating a simple sugar like honey just before competition might actually have a negative impact on performance. So whos right? As it turns out, father knows best.
After you eat a simple carbohydrate such as glucose (a sugar often found in sports drinks and gels), your blood-sugar level rises.
This causes your pancreas to release insulin. Insulins main function is to reduce your blood-sugar level by helping to transport glucose to your muscles. This is all good because we need glucose to fuel the muscle contractions involved in running. However, our working muscles need to continue to get energy from the glucose in our blood. So its important to keep our blood-sugar level from dropping while we run.
But how can you use the sugar in sports drinks and gels to help you perform your best? Like many things in life, its all in the timing. As you get closer to race time, you need to pay more attention to your sugar intake.
So, two to four hours before your race, have a light meal (400-800kcal) that is high in carbohydrates and low in fat and fibre. Then follow the guidelines below so you can perfectly time your sugar fix.
One hour pre-race
Taking in the sugar from a sports drink or gel during this window of time is fine for most of us, especially if you skipped your pre-race meal. But there are some people who experience large dips in their blood-sugar levels shortly after eating something sugary.
The result is that their muscles can no longer draw energy from the sugar in their blood. And when this happens, muscle and liver glycogen levels are likely to become depleted more quickly as well. So if youre prone to these dips in blood sugar, stick with plain water and hold off on the sugar during this time.
Five minutes pre-race
Eating sugar immediately before competition does not result in a dramatic drop in blood sugar. Insulin simply does not have enough time to rush the sugar out of the blood and into the muscles before the race begins. So go ahead and pop a gel or down some honey before toeing the line.
Depending on the length of your race, sugar can definitely have a positive impact on your performance. During a 5K or 10K, youll do fine without the sugar since youll probably be exercising for less than an hour. Studies show that during these shorter events, sugar offers little benefit, although its not going to hurt your performance either.
During a half-marathon or a marathon, however, sugar gets a big thumbs up. A gel immediately before the start and one every 45 minutes to an hour thereafter have proven effective in boosting performance during endurance events. Take your gel just before a water stop so you can drink some water soon after to aid its absorption and to keep you well-hydrated (as gels alone will not do this).
Just remember that gels and sports drinks dont replace training. Take them in moderation. With gels, you dont need a rucksack full of them at the start line unless you plan on selling them for a profit at mile 20 (not a bad idea). And as with all things, try them on your long runs before you use them in an important race.