The legendary French cyclist Jacques Anquetil used to taunt his opponents with his taste for lobster, steak tarter and champagne. Meanwhile, beer breaks were de rigueur in the early history of the Tour de France.
Carbohydrate, or energy gels are the race fuel of choice among today’s peloton. But a new study suggests a portion of humble mashed potato is just as effective in supporting prolonged cycling performance.
A potentially cheaper alternative to gels
"Research has shown that ingesting concentrated carbohydrate gels during prolonged exercise promotes carbohydrate availability during exercise and improves exercise performance," said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Nicholas Burd, who led the research. "Our study aim was to expand and diversify race-fueling options for athletes and offset flavour fatigue."
"Potatoes are a promising alternative for athletes because they represent a cost-effective, nutrient-dense and whole-food source of carbohydrates," the researchers reported in the Journal of Applied Physiology. "Furthermore, they serve as a savoury race fuel option when compared (with) the high sweetness of (carbohydrate) gels."
The study looked at the performance of 12 people taking a two-hour cycling challenge followed by a time trial. The subjects all averaged 165 miles of cycling every week.
During the experiments, they would consume either water alone, a commercially available carbohydrate gel or an equivalent amount of carbohydrates obtained from potatoes.
The researchers standardized what the 12 cyclists ate for 24 hours before repeating the 120-minute cycling challenge and time trial, which was designed to mirror typical race conditions. Throughout the exercise, the team measured participants' blood glucose, core body temperature, exercise intensity, gastric emptying and gastrointestinal symptoms. The researchers also measured concentrations of lactate, a metabolic marker of intense exercise, in participants' blood.
‘You can't ride the Tour de France on mineral water’
"We found no differences between the performance of cyclists who got their carbohydrates by ingesting potatoes or gels at recommended amounts of about 60 grams per hour during the experiments," Burd said. "Both groups saw a significant boost in performance that those consuming only water did not achieve."
Plasma glucose concentrations went up by a similar amount in those consuming potatoes and gels. Participants’ heart rates increased by a similar amount over the water-only cyclists, and they were speedier on the time trial.
There’s a downside: flatulence
Those consuming potatoes experienced significantly more gastrointestinal bloating, pain and flatulence than the other groups, however. This may be a result of the larger volume of potatoes needed to match the glucose provided by the gels, Burd said.
"Nevertheless, average GI symptoms were lower than previous studies, indicating that both (carbohydrate) conditions were well-tolerated by the majority of the study's cyclists," the researchers wrote.
"All in all, our study is a proof-of-concept showing that athletes may use whole-food sources of carbohydrates as an alternative to commercial products to diversify race-fueling menus," Burd said.
The study concluded: “Potato and gel ingestion equally sustained blood glucose concentrations and TT [time-trial] performance. Our results support the effective use of potatoes to support race performance for trained cyclists.”
The study was supported by the Alliance for Potato Research and Education, a not-for-profit organisation funded by the potato industry in the US.
‘Potato ingestion is as effective as carbohydrate gels to support prolonged cycling performance’
Journal of Applied Physiology
Authors: Amadeo F. Salvador, Colleen F. McKenna, Rafael A. Alamilla, Ryan M. T. Cloud, Alexander R. Keeble, Adriana Miltko, Susannah E. Scaroni, Joseph W. Beals, Alexander V. Ulanov, Ryan N. Dilger, Laura L. Bauer, Elizabeth M. Broad, Nicholas A. Burd., 2019;