With the proliferation of running gels, energy drinks and isotonic performance enhancing super foods available to the modern runner you could be forgiven for thinking that you would be foolhardy to even attempt to run without one of these performance enhancing products in your hand. A cursory glance at any running magazine will confirm your fears, your current nutritional regime is inadequate. But could the answer be staring you in the face this summer? Not in specialist running shops, or even your local health food store, but in another less obvious locale? I am referring (of course?) to those majestic music playing purveyors of summer nutrition and national institution; the ice cream van. These overlooked sports nutrition stations can be found in many of your favourite running spots. Often conveniently located near car parks, amenities and some of the most picturesque running trails you will run this summer.
So what can these unconventional sports nutrition stations offer the modern runner and how do they measure up to their more conventional sports nutrition competitors with their shiny wrappers and seductive performance enhancing claims?
First the performance gels and drinks: Normally the main ingredients are a combination of water and sugar (glucose, fructose, maltodextrin; they are all sugar) added to this may be a variety of flavourings (often natural), proteins (normally called an amino acid blend or similar marketing turn of phrase– don’t be fooled by the science folks this is just protein), added vitamins, salt and ‘salts’ often including additional potassium (important for heart and muscle function), emulsifiers to help keep the ingredients mixed well together and an ingredient such as pectin to give the right ‘gel like’ consistency. Some gels and drinks also contain caffeine which has been shown in several studies to temporarily improve sporting performance.
This all combines to give a drink that is high in energy, low in fat, replenishes lost salts and contains vitamins. So how does this compare to the humble ice cream?
Homemade vanilla ice cream contains cream, sugar and vanilla pods, but don’t be surprised if your ice cream fix straight from the van also contains partially reconstituted whey powder, Dextrose, Emulsifier, Stabilizers (e.g. Guar Gum, Sodium Alginate), Flavouring and Colours (e.g. Curcumin, Annatin). But what does this all mean and should we be worried?
First let’s take partially reconstituted whey powder – sounds rather scary and artificial, but add a marketing department and we could equally call this – ‘amino acid blend’ it’s just protein again folks. Ok. Dextrose – it’s just a form of sugar. And stabilizers do a similar job to the emulsifiers and pectin found in our gels.
So ice cream is just as good for us then? Not so fast. Ice cream is a good source of energy and sugars which we need to replace the energy lost during a run. It is also a good source of vitamin D (thank you milk) and contains some vitamin C and B. However before you rush out to buy that ice cream, the milk and cream in ice cream also add a disproportionally large amount of fat to your scoop. About a quarter of which is saturated fat (of heart attack fame). In addition ice cream is relatively low in salt. Normally considered a good thing – however for a summer runner replacing electrolytes after a run (read salts), this is not such good news.
So with the summer approaching could ice cream really be your best source of race nutrition for improved running performance this year? Well, maybe not, but it tastes great and is a great way to reward yourself after a run, and if you eat an even remotely balanced diet then you will already be getting enough vitamins and salts (and ‘amino acid blend’), so enjoy that ice cream without guilt this summer! You deserve it. Just don’t eat too many if you want to keep those saturated fat levels down.
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