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We have a complicated relationship with sugar. Many of us love to hate it and many hate that we love it. While feelings about sugar can be polarizing, the truth about how it affects our training is bittersweet. Sugars are the base of carbohydrates, which athletes need in their diet especially for recovery, and pre-training fuel. The right kind of sugar, in optimal amounts, can fuel you for a successful training session and jumpstart recovery. However, have too much of the wrong sugars and you’re likely headed for a painful sugar crash. We’ll walk through how to fuel and refuel to get the maximum benefits out of your training.
Sugars and recovery
Glucose is a simple sugar, which is stored in our liver and muscles in the form of glycogen, and is broken down for energy, in the form of ATP, during exercise (through a series of reactions known as glycolysis). After the body has tapped into its available glucose, it breaks down the glycogen in the liver and muscles into glucose (through a series of reactions known as glycogenolysis) to keep us moving forward and fueled. Replenishing glycogen stores within the first 30-45 minutes after training is an important part of an athlete’s recovery plan, as depleted glycogen stores may cause the body to seek out glucose from other stores, such as by breaking down protein (those muscle you’ve worked so hard on are fair game) and fat. This is not only a slower process, but athletes with low muscle glycogen may also experience a decrease in exertion capacity and are at a higher risk for muscle damage and overtraining. This is one of the reasons why refueling the body with a mix of carbohydrates and protein after training is critical.
Athletes need glucose to fuel muscles but burning glucose at a high rate is also grounds for getting us into trouble, this is another reason swimmers’ relationship with swimmers is complicated. Intentionally refueling with glucose post-training is helpful for restoring glycogen levels, but the danger comes in when sugar is snuck in to sweeten the foods and drinks we use to refuel. Processed and added sugar can be problematic. Hidden sugars in foods we assume are healthy may add unwanted calories and can wreak havoc on blood sugar levels, quickly turning a well-intentioned snack aimed to refuel ourselves into a rush and an inevitable halting crash.
Greg Crowther’s parody cover of the Archies song “Sugar, Sugar” pretty much sums this up (this is required watching as mentioned above):
“Glucose — ah, sugar sugar —
You are my favorite fuel
From the blood-borne substrate pool.
Glucose — monosaccharide sugar —
You’re sweeter than a woman’s kiss
‘Cause I need you for glycolysis…
Ah, glucose –ah, sugar sugar —
I used you up and you left me flat;
Now I’ll have to get my kicks from fat.
Oh, glucose, glucose, sugar, sugar,
The honeymoon is over now.”
Sorry if this gets stuck on a loop, we wish you good luck getting it out of your head.
A quick refresher, for those who weren’t paying attention in biology class, or who still only think of sugar as the best way to rescue soggy cornflakes. Sugar is a group of saccharides. Simple sugars are monosaccharides (one simple sugar), which include fructose (sugar in fruit), glucose (the body’s preferred energy source), and galactose (sugar in milk). Disaccharides are a combination of two simple sugars, such as lactose (glucose and galactose), and sucrose (table sugar, a combination of fructose and glucose). More complex sugars are a combination of polysaccharides, such as starch and glycogen, the latter of which is stored in our muscles and liver and is critical for swimmers. Glycogen (our energy store) is formed through the process of glycogenesis, which occurs when the body’s levels of glucose and ATP are sufficiently high, and then the excess of insulin promotes the conversion of glucose into glycogen. In order to replenish glycogen stores, we need to consume something that contains glucose, or a different sugar that can be broken down into glucose. As different sugars have different chemical structures, the body will digest them in different ways, some of which are more beneficial for training than others, which is why it matters that you’re getting the right sugars, from the right sources and just as importantly, in the right amounts.
Swimmers and the sugar problem
So by now, you might be thinking of sugar as a necessary evil. Athletes need sugars for fuel and recovery but that doesn’t mean table sugar, which believe it or not hasn’t always been vilified. Table sugar was once considered a darling and was even advertised as a weight loss aid in the 70’s. After a few decades of excess sugar has fallen from grace in the media, with some arguing it’s toxic enough to warrant regulation in the same way that alcohol is. The overconsumption of sugar has been linked to obesity and other ailments, including digestion problems, high cholesterol, depression, cancers, and diabetes, and shorter-term ailments such as worsened asthma, inflammation, constipation, and headaches. At our level, even the most die-hard sweet-toothed swimmer isn’t likely to be consuming candy and lollipops to the extent where the above is cause for concern, but having excess sugar in your diet does stand to sabotage training and performance, and chances are you may be consuming more sugar than you think. Aside from the occasional guilty pleasure like Ben and Jerry’s, it’s likely the excess sugar is in your diet is probably showing up in more clandestine coverings, and for the following reasons it can sabotage your success in the pool:
- Sugar has been shown to slow the travel time of food through the gastrointestinal tract, which can mess up your meal timing for training sessions and meets. A breakfast loaded with sugar can take longer to digest and end up in a training session with cramps, fatigue, nausea, and other issues that sabotage your performance.
- Sprinters who time their glucose intake correctly could stand to benefit from a bit of a “sugar kick”, however anything longer than a sprint and you’re likely to be setting yourself up for a painful session, hitting the wall. What about energy drinks? Simple sugars are most optimally digested when mixed with weak 6-8% solutions in match body fluid osmolality parameters (280-303 mOsm). However, solutions mixed and consumed at this concentration provide a maximum of 100 calories per hour, which is not alone sufficient to sustain most swimmers’ energy production. If you’ve already started doing math in your head, you may have just realized that diluting sugar with more fluid to reach these concentrations is going to result in excess fluid intake, which is most likely going to result in bloating, discomfort and cramps.
Getting the right sugar in the right amount:
Working to regulate your intake is likely going to mean more than skipping candy bars or sodas. Have you read the back of your sports drink lately? Opting for sports drinks that use complex carbohydrates or glucose polymers can be beneficial, and help to avoid the potential pitfalls we mentioned above. Double-check your labels.
Try to balance out your plate at each meal, matching out complex carbohydrates with non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, mushrooms, onions and carrots. Fruits are a good source of fructose, which raises blood sugar levels at a slower rate, but also has to be converted into glucose by the liver. A review of peer-reviewed research in Examine found “fruits such as blueberry and mango may help with blood sugar regulation, even though they contain sugar.” They attributed this to the presence of phytochemicals, even though the same researchers have owned up to not being entirely sure how it works. Raspberries, strawberries, kiwis, and watermelon are delicious options with low sugar content.
As we’ve mentioned before the best recovery snacks will include protein and carbohydrates (ideally something highly nutritious to help fill in the micronutrients you’ve also lost during training). If you’re looking for something that has a good mix of good sugars and proteins, milk-based drinks (like P2Life’s NutriBoost shakes) are an excellent source of sugar (glucose and galactose) as well as protein, both of which are important for jumpstarting recovery after a tough workout. A study published in the Medicine and Science Sports and Exercise Journal found the effect of maltodextrin drinks with fructose or galactose were twice as effective as those containing maltodextrin and glucose in restoring glycogen during short-term post-exercise recovery.
P2Life’s NutriBoost shake is a great option, where sugars supplied are from fructose and galactose (the sugars naturally occurring in milk), as well as a mix of three different proteins in optimal ratios to maximize recovery and keep you fueled for later.
For more detailed information on getting the most out of your training, by focusing on recovery download our Recovery 101 Guide.
P2Life is a family-owned, performance-based, nutritional supplement company that was designed for swimmers, by swimmers, to protect health and promote performance. Within one year of launching, P2Life was the preferred choice for 40% of the USA Men’s National Swim at the London Olympics. Today P2Life is the dominant force in nutrition and is tried, tested, and loved by elite and aspiring athletes across all levels; high school, collegiate and masters swimmers around the globe. Every P2Life product is independently batch tested to be certified free of banned and illegal substances. P2life products have undergone +35 years of rigorous research and development, and the difference they make is evident in the numbers. With 18 Olympic medals, +800 World Records, and +100 National Age Group Records and counting, it’s clear that P2Life athletes feel the difference.
P2Life was founded by Tim Shead, a Masters Swimming Hall of Fame Inductee and +45x World Record Holder, and co-founded by Michael Shead, a former national water polo player. Tim’s expertise in swimming and years of experience and knowledge working with nutritional products, combined with Michael’s love of innovation and technical background, has enabled the P2Life team to create a technologically savvy company that is dedicated to furthering athletic potential. P2Life strives to empower athletes with the highest-quality nutritional supplements, backed by peer-reviewed scientific research, and to arm athletes and their loved ones with accurate and reliable information to make informed decisions. The whole P2Life team is working to fuel the athletes of today and tomorrow for a bright future, in which dreams become achievable goals and sustainable realities.
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