Sugar: is it really the bad guy?

Sugar: Is it really the bad guy?

My social media channels are full to the brim with sugar-free recipes, articles denouncing sugar, and photos of sugar-free caramel pancake dressings (mmm, pancakes). I wholeheartedly support the reduction of sugar in our diets, and it’s something I probably talk about almost as often as I talk about CrossFit (first rule of CrossFit: tell EVERYONE you do CrossFit - if you know, you know). Having said that, since getting into endurance sports I’ve done a lot to understand the role of sugar in our bodies and the part it plays in exercise. As a total newbie to endurance sports, I needed to learn how to fuel myself properly for my long training runs – and I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be the same strategies I use for my CrossFit and Fit Missions high intensity sessions.

Sugar isn’t the enemy. The way we eat it is

In a modern Western diet, sugar is more prolific than a Kardashian (a very sad fact indeed). The trouble is we are also more sedentary than ever, with most of us in deskbound jobs, spending more time on our phones than indulging in active pursuits. These two don’t go together particularly well, as is evident in the rise in tooth decay in adolescents and Type 2 Diabetes, which has risen by 60% in the last decade alone*. How can it be, then, that sugar isn’t quite the demon it’s been made out to be in recent media? And why, as a fitness professional do I seem to be defending it?

Food is fuel, not therapy

This is the crux of the debate over sugar/fat/insert demonised food group here. When we remember that food is there to fuel us through the day and whatever it throws at us, we can start to understand sugar, fat, carbs and the situations in which we might need them. We can also then separate sugar in its pure form and where it might be useful, from food and drink that contain high sugar levels, as well as a tonne of chemicals and toxins.

When you might actually need sugar

My primary styles of training for the last 3 years have been CrossFit and Fit Missions, both of which use weightlifting and high intensity movements in sessions that typically last for up to an hour. You can train in this way on little to no food, as long as you’re well hydrated and generally have a good diet. This is because you can store sufficient glycogen (sugar) in your muscles to keep you going through the entire session – you don’t need to top it up.

Transitioning to marathon or endurance training, however, during which you’re often heading out for 2-3 hours at a time, your fuelling strategies have to change somewhat. After about 90 minutes you either need to replenish your glycogen stores or slow down to give your body time to convert body fat into an energy source (which is entirely possible, it’s just a much slower process).

Still with me?

In a marathon, ultra-distance or triathlon for example, you may want to start topping up your depleted glycogen stores after about the 90-minute to 2-hour mark so that you can maintain your pace. You can do this by taking on sugar in an easily-digestible form such as bananas, jelly babies, carbo gels or Lucozade Sport.

When you definitely don’t need sugar

Be careful not to load up on sugar or carbohydrates before you train unless you’ll be exercising for 90 minutes or longer. Your body will always choose to use the most readily-available energy source so if you pack it full of sugar just before going for a 45 minute run/tough CrossFit class/Insanity-style HIIT session, all you’ll do is burn off the calories you’ve just taken on board.

Even if you’re training hard, if it’s for 90 minutes or less you don’t need to ‘treat’ your body afterwards with sugars such as bananas, energy drinks or cereal bars. Plenty of gyms offer post-workout smoothies but choose wisely: your best bet is one with a water or plant-milk base, a source of protein (usually in powder form) and some greens such as spinach to get some calcium and vitamins into your system.

You can eat sugar – just time it well

I’m often surprised by people’s reactions to the realisation that endurance runners eat sugary or high-carbohydrate foods. Susie Chan, endurance athlete and a fitness friend of mine, happily admits to fuelling her ultra-marathons with jelly babies, pizza, anything to keep the calorie count up and the energy coming.  The key thing to remember is that it is done as a fuelling strategy, not as a daily lifestyle choice. There’s a big difference between taking on board sugars in a bid to keep your body going through a gruelling run, and opting for processed foods, sugary snacks or calorific cocktails on a regular basis. Make wise choices – you know what they are, and you’re the only one who can make them.

Top 5 Sugar Tips

1. Save carbs and sugars for when you’re exercising continuously for 2 hours or more, or immediately after a tough cardio session.

2. At other times, stick to slow-release carbs, protein and natural foods like vegetables, nuts and a little fruit.

3. Always drink sufficient water. Nothing is more important to your body!

4. Lucozade Sport, bananas, carb gels and jelly babies/beans are good sources of immediate-release sugars for when you need them.

5. Sugar has a bad rep for a reason. Use it sparingly and don’t get addicted!

*reported by Diabetes UK, August 2015