Whether you’re involved in middle-distance events, powerlifting, team sports or recreational lifting you don’t have to look far to find someone slurping on a carbohydrate gel like a popsicle or chugging back on an intra-workout carbohydrate drink.
Of course, reaching carbohydrate requirements (particularly for those with high physical activity levels) can be a challenge for some and thus these supplements can provide an efficient means to solve that problem. However, given the high cost, commercialism and widespread use of these supplements (beyond those needing time-efficient carbohydrate sources) surely there must be additional benefits?
Indeed, some research has shown that consuming concentrated carbohydrate gels during long bouts of exercise can allow for higher carbohydrate availability during exercise and subsequently improve performance. However, what has yet to be uncovered is whether whole-food sources of carbohydrate could be a viable race-fuelling alternative, for a fraction of the cost.
Study in the ‘Spudlight’
Thankfully, a brand-new study set out to tackle this question by recruiting 12 healthy well-trained cyclists who were performing on average 267 kilometres of training per week. To be eligible for the study, the cyclists had to reach a specific threshold for aerobic fitness and complete a 2-hour cycling challenge followed by a time trial. So, these guys were advanced, the sort of cohort who COULD benefit from a 1-2% edge coming from supplement use.
The eligible cyclists were randomly assigned to one of three conditions during the experiment:
Condition A: to consume water.
Condition B: to consume a commercial carbohydrate gel (60g CHO per hour).
Condition C: to consume an equivalent amount of carbohydrate coming from white potato (60g CHO per hour).
The experiment involved another 2-hour cycling challenge, followed by a time trial simulating race conditions. Prior to the experimental session the research team standardised what the cyclists ate for 24 hours. During the session, blood glucose, core body temperature, exercise intensity, gastric emptying and GI symptoms were monitored.
Contrary to what we’d expect given the widespread use and high cost of the carbohydrate gels, there were no differences in the performance of the cyclists who got their carbohydrates by ingesting potato, or gels during the experiment. Both groups were significantly (and equally) better compared to the group that consumed only water. Additionally, plasma glucose increased similarly in the two carbohydrate groups, as well as heart rate.
However, there was another key finding from this research that prevents us from hammering a nail in the coffin of carbohydrate gels…
The group consuming potato for their carbohydrate experienced more gastrointestinal bloating, pain and flatulence than the other groups, likely due to the larger volume of food required to match the glucose provided by the gels. The authors did go on to note however that the average GI symptoms were still low compared to other studies, indicating that both carbohydrate conditions were well-tolerated by the majority of cyclists.
So, the Chinese takeaways:
- Higher carbohydrate availability during extended bouts of exercise will improve performance
- It does not matter whether you consume potato or fancy commercial carb gels as long as the carbohydrate amount is matched, performance will improve similarly with both
- From a cost perspective, potato is a superior means to improve performance opposed to carbohydrate gels
- For some, carbohydrate gels may be tolerated better than potato with less gastrointestinal upset, bloating and flatulence despite being no better for performance
- If cost is not an issue, some may prefer to opt for carbohydrate gels over potato (or whole food carbohydrate sources) for ease of consumption, time efficiency, and potentially less GI disturbance