Many endurance athletes use commercial gels for energy during training and races, but potatoes are just as effective as a source of fuel as the energy gels, according to a new study by University of Illinois researchers.
The study was the first to compare a whole food source to a commercially available sport food, said the researchers.
“People are using potatoes in racing and training already, but no one had tested it,” said Amadeo Salvador, a graduate student in kinesiology who was part of the research team.
The aim was to identify an alternative, nutrient-dense, whole food option for race fuel.
“A lot of athletes want a simplified ingredient list, and you can’t get more simple than a potato,” said kinesiology professor Nicholas Burd, who led the study. Funding for the study was provided by the Alliance for Potato Research and Education.
“It’s really good for race fuel,” he said. “An approach doesn’t need to be too fancy. It’s just carbohydrates. Athletes need to eat a carbohydrate-dense source. It can be potato or sports gel or something else.”
Using potatoes could counter “flavor fatigue,” Burd said.
“After repeated ingestion of gels in a race, they become unappetizing due to the high sweetness. We wanted to try to introduce a savory option,” he said.
During the study, 12 highly trained competitive cyclists each performed a two-hour cycling challenge three times — once using gels as fuel, once using pureed potatoes and once consuming only water. The cyclists were given 60 grams of gel or pureed potatoes per hour during the tests involving those fuels. They cycled for two hours with several high-intensity bursts designed to simulate a race with hill climbs. At the end of the cycling challenge, they raced a time trial during which they had to pedal as hard as possible, simulating a sprint to the finish line.
“It was intense. They pushed me to the limit every time,” said Suzanne Rinehart of Mahomet, one of the cyclists who participated in the study.
Rinehart cycles a couple of hundred miles per week in the summer months, has completed multiple Ironman triathlons and recently has started racing long-distance gravel bike races.
She uses gels or a mixture of fuel and water in her water bottle during training and races. She’s never used solid foods, and she was interested to see how potatoes would work for her. She found she had plenty of energy during the cycling challenge when she ate the potato puree.
The team measured the cyclists’ performance and found their time trials were significantly faster when they used potatoes or gels than when they consumed only water. There was no difference in results between the tests when the cyclists used potatoes or gels.
The researchers measured several biological factors, including the cyclists’ blood glucose, lactate levels and gastric emptying (the rate at which fuel moves into the small intestine where it can be absorbed into the bloodstream and used for energy). The researchers found the results of the tests were very similar with use of potatoes and gels.
Some cyclists had abdominal pain and bloating in the later stages of the cycling challenge when they consumed the potato puree. Burd attributed that to the volume of potatoes they had to consume to equal the carbohydrate content of the gels.
“That’s a lot to stomach for anyone. They did start to experience some GI problems, but they still tolerated it well,” Burd said. “The more trained the athlete, the better they were able to perform and the lower the GI symptoms. These trained athletes are more attuned to eating during training.”
Rinehart didn’t have any stomach issues from the potatoes.
“The only thing that got old was the volume,” she said. “They inject it into your mouth while you’re pushing hard. You have to swallow a big mouthful of mashed potatoes. By the end, you’re just kind of choking it down.”
Rinehart said she may try potatoes as fuel if she can find a good way to carry them during a training session or a race.
The research team doesn’t expect potatoes to become the sole fuel for endurance athletes. But Burd and Salvador said it doesn’t have to be 100% gels either. Athletes can incorporate potatoes in the latter part of a race to counter flavor fatigue from gels, they said.
“Would you go to straight potatoes throughout a race? Probably not, but as a component of a race fueling menu, you can incorporate potatoes,” Burd said.
Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner and triathlete. You can email her at email@example.com or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line.