Refueling During Exercise: Fruit vs. Sports Drinks

Bananaby Elizabeth Patton, MS, RD, LD, CDE

What is the best option for refueling during exercise? It’s a good question; especially since there are many options available. Endurance athletes especially need carbohydrates (sugars) to fuel muscles in order to perform. Fruit, sports drinks and other supplements supply carbohydrates and are all potential energy for athletes.

In search of the best performance “fuel,” researchers at Appalachian State University compared the effects of a typical sports drink versus a banana on cycling performance. They found that during intense cycling, both sports drinks and bananas yielded comparable athletic performance, but that the bananas have some additional benefits that sports drinks don’t. Bananas provide a nutritional boost due to their naturally occurring fiber, potassium and vitamin B6 in addition to what the researchers call a “healthier blend of sugars.”

For the study, cyclists consumed either 8 ounces of a 6% carbohydrate drink (Gatorade) or half a banana every 15 minutes during a road race lasting 2.5 to 3 hours. Blood samples taken from the cyclists before and after the exercise were analyzed for more than 100 molecules associated with metabolism, which were not significantly different after exercise in both groups. Cyclists who consumed the bananas reported feeling more bloated and full after their race, likely due to the 15 g fiber contained in the amount of bananas they consumed (at least half the recommended daily recommendation). Both fruit and 6% carbohydrate sports drinks are options recommended by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Natural foods are a great fuel for our bodies. Bananas are cheap and easy to carry, peel and eat during exercise. Depending upon the type, intensity and duration of exercise you are performing, different commercial products or beverages may be more appropriate than whole foods. But whenever possible, fuel your body with food! It’s a more complete nutritional package. Compare nutrients between foods and supplement options to make sure you select the best fuel for your particular type of exercise.

One medium banana contains about 27 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 105 calories, and is a good source of potassium (422 mg) and vitamin B6 (0.43 mg). The sugars in a medium banana are a mixture of glucose (5.9 g), fructose (5.7 g), and sucrose (2.8 g).

Sixteen ounces of Gatorade contains 28 g carbohydrate coming from a sucrose-dextrose-fructose blend (11 g glucose, 9.1 g fructose, and 4.6 g sucrose), 100 calories, 220 mg sodium, and 60 mg potassium.

Gatorade’s G2 line is an option for those looking to replenish electrolytes while sparing carbohydrates and calories.

If you are training for a race and plan to use fruit, sports drinks or other supplements to refuel, make sure you “practice” with the type of fuel you plan to use before the real race so that there are no surprises. Talk with your trainer and dietitian about your exercise, nutrition and refueling plans for optimal performance.

What’s your go-to fuel choice? 

Elizabeth Patton MS, RD, LD, CDE is the chief blogger behind Good Food Tastes Gooda blog where Liz shares her passion for healthy eating and expertise on the matter regularly. Follow Good Food Tastes Good on Facebook


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