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Sports foods vs regular foods for fueling: Is one better than the other?

Last year at an Ironman I watched someone chomp down a sweet potato coming out of T2.

A sweet potato.

The interest in using “regular” food (ie fruits, crackers, sweet potatoes, coconut water) versus engineered sports foods (ie electrolyte beverages, gels, chews) has exponentially grown over the last few years. It’s no longer a question of whether or not fueling surrounding training and races is beneficial; now it’s a question of what type of fueling and the best source for it. With perhaps a personal interest in reducing processed foods, many are choosing to focus on identifying things besides sports foods to fuel their performance.

So the question is, is one really better than the other? Consider these factors to help you decide.

1. Comparability. Before you replace a sports foods with regular food find out if the nutrient profile is fairly comparable. For example, some have gravitated towards coconut water as a replacement for sports drinks, yet it takes 12 oz of coconut water to get roughly the same amount of carbohydrate and sodium in 8 oz of sports drink. It may have more potassium but far more sodium is lost in sweat, which is what most need to focus on replacing. On the other end, thinks like pretzels may provide far more sodium than a traditional sports drink or chew – so conceivably some salty carb snacks along with water could do the trick as well.

2. Digestive ease. On the one hand, some sports foods are designed for better absorption; on the other, they could be contributing to digestive problems while working out, such as gas, bloating, and diarrhea. For example, most sports drinks have a carbohydrate concentration of 4-8%, whereas a soda or juice has a 10-14% concentration. It makes a big difference in absorption! In particular because the latter is usually higher in fructose, which is absorbed at a slower rate than glucose. So before you grab for the flat soda at mile 16 of the marathon, be certain you’ve practice with it in advance.

3. Palatability. In a half or full Ironman you may consume over a dozen gu’s or packages of chews in addition to liters upon liters of sports drink. The thought of consuming one more sweet or gooey item may be enough to drive you crazy, so having a few “savory” or traditional food items to break up the monotony is a good idea.

4. Practicality. Remember, you always need to practice your fueling during training, down to the brand and amount of an item. It’s unlikely a race will carry your favorite organic peanut butter pretzel cracker, so unless you are willing to carry all of your fuel in some shape or form during a race it’s a good idea to be comfortable consuming the sports foods a race course provides. You don’t need to rely on them, but at least test them out in advance to know if they’ll work in a pinch (like when the sweet potato goes flying out your back pocket on the bike).

So sports foods or regular foods can get you to your peak race – it’s just a matter of knowing what works best for you.

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