Sugar is fuel
Updated: Jan 12, 2020
Several years ago I recall overhearing a local coach telling someone about the perils of eating 2-minute noodles before a race/workout, “it’s just sugar, there’s nothing substantial in it”, he said. In most ways he couldn’t be more wrong. Allow me to explain.
The overview on carbohydrate
I’ve mentioned before that when we exercise we will burn a mixture of fat and carbohydrate for fuel, and the harder we go the more carbohydrate we will use. The carbohydrate will come from either muscle or liver glycogen, or from food we just consumed, which will be delivered to the working muscle through blood glucose (blood sugar).
Many people will promote eating ‘slow digesting’ or ‘low GI’ carbohydrates. This is certainly a good move for overall health, as these will give you a more sustained blood sugar increase, and help avoid that ‘crash’ feeling you can get after having a high sugar snack. However, no matter what source you get your dietary carbohydrate from, it will end up as blood glucose (sugar), or glycogen (basically a form of sugar). THE BODY RUNS ON SUGAR!!!
Where does sugar fit into this then?
So if eating slow digesting carbohydrates is healthier, where does this leave something like our 2-minute noodles or energy gel?
These still have a place in the diet of an athlete despite what some may tell you.
First of all, the energy gel. Yes, taking one of these while just doing everyday tasks is not ideal, but when you are exercising intensely, your body is craving sugar for fuel. Normally when you eat carbohydrate your body releases a hormone called insulin which lowers you blood sugar back down to normal levels and allows you to store the carbohydrate as glycogen or convert it to fat. However, when you are exercising, your body will use the carbohydrate for fuel, so you don’t need a large release of insulin to bring your blood sugar down.
The negative effects of sugar come from it raising blood sugar very high, this causing insulin to be raised very high, as well as people being overweight because they ate too much of it.
When you exercise you won’t have these side effects of sugar. You will take in the sugar, absorb it, and burn it. Done. No harmful effect there.
When and why would you eat 2-minute noodles then?
You aren’t going to eat 2-minute noodles on the bike, run, or swim are you? So when do they have a place?
The answer; before training when you have limited time and a relatively intense session planned.
If your workout is easy you will have minimal need for any carbohydrate, but if it is hard, fueling with some carbohydrate is ideal. Normally I advise people to have something slower release like a bowl of porridge before working out, but there are times when you just have a few minutes to quickly eat and go. This means you don’t want something heavy sitting in your gut as there is minimal time for it to digest. In this case something quick, fast digesting, and high in carbohydrate is the perfect pre-exercise meal, and 2-minute noodles fits the bill perfectly. In this situation you could even have a few lollies or some sports drink, even fruit loops will do the trick!
The key take home here is that in the right situation sugar is fuel, not the enemy.
Don’t take this as a license to eat crap foods whenever you want, it doesn’t work that way. But appropriately timed sugar intake is one highly performance enhancing method which won’t ruin your health.
Want help planning your nutrition for training and racing? Get in contact with us and we can help you out.