Alternative Energy: Do Energy Gels and Supplements Really Work?
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The Real Deal on Energy Supplements
Despite the allure of science-created supplements, most experts suggest trying to meet nutritional requirements the old-fashioned way first: a healthy diet and a daily multivitamin. Another safe bet? Getting plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, either through food (eating fish like salmon twice a week) or a supplement (1,000 to 2,000 milligrams daily). "Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial whether you're an elite athlete or a casual exerciser," says Jose Antonio, PhD, a sports nutritionist and chief executive officer of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. In addition to their heart-health benefits, research suggests omega-3s may improve exercise performance by reducing inflammation and easing muscle soreness, he says.
But many women want more than good health. They're looking for the proverbial shot in the arm to get them through lengthy workouts or training for physically demanding events.
Enter energy gels, some of the most popular and legitimate products on the market for recreational endurance athletes. These gels, usually packaged in single-serving tab-top pouches you can use on the go, offer quick, easy-to-digest energy in the form of simple sugars. "It's like predigested pasta," says sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, RD, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. "It sends energy in the form of glycogen to your muscles to keep them working." Many gels can also be a significant source of caffeine -- good because studies show that caffeine improves endurance performance and focus, not so good if you wash those gels down with certain sports beverages, a number of which also contain large doses of the substance. Too much can lead to an elevated heart rate, jitters, and headaches, so aim to keep your daily caffeine consumption to around 300 milligrams, the equivalent of three to four cups of coffee, and watch for any side effects.
If energy gels are essentially glorified simple carbs, what's wrong with downing a handful of raisins instead? Not a thing, says Clark, who is a strong proponent of exercisers getting their nutrition from food that is as close to nature as possible. "Energy gels and bars don't have magic ingredients; you'll get similar results from a Nature Valley granola bar or a couple of Fig Newtons," she says. "Many energy bars are just glorified cookies, but they're marketed in a way that makes people think they need this stuff." There's no denying the convenience factor, however. Sticking a PowerBar in your shorts pocket, Clark allows, is an efficient way to carry necessary calories on a long bike ride. On the other hand, those out for a 50-minute jog likely don't need supplements during their workout. (A good rule of thumb is that any activity that takes less than 60 to 90 minutes probably doesn't require a boost, because your body's glycogen stores won't be depleted.) "People need to be better-informed consumers," Clark says. "There's a place for sports supplements, but often you simply don't need the extra calories." Similarly, someone out for a long run under the hot sun will probably lose a significant amount of potassium and sodium that needs to be replenished with electrolyte drinks, but the average jogger won't. "For most women, a healthy diet and rehydrating with water is enough," Clark says. "It takes a lot of strenuous activity to deplete electrolytes."
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