At the very first Hawaii Ironman competition in 1978, Dave Orlowski finished third. It was a remarkable showing for the 22-year-old Marine, considering that he wore a pair of cutoff blue jeans, rode a borrowed 10-speed bike, and stopped at a McDonalds along the route for a burger, fries, and a shake. “There were no aid stations, so my nutrition consisted of stopping at gas stations and eating Hershey’s bars, water, Coca-Cola, juice,” he said in a 2008 interview.
These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone wearing jorts on any triathlon course, and you almost definitely won’t find someone stopping off for a milkshake along the route. As the equipment needed to complete a triathlon has evolved, so too has the nutrition used to power it.
How beef broth and brandy gave way to Gatorade
In 1875 when Captain Matthew Webb, a merchant seaman from Shropshire, England, waded into the waves to begin his historic swim across the English Channel, he didn’t have any fancy, lab-created sports nutrition aboard the accompanying support boat. Instead he powered his swim with beef broth and brandy. “He took no solid food whatever while in the water, the only nutriment given him being coffee, ale, brandy, a little cod liver oil, and beef tea,” the Dover Express newspaper reported on August 27, 1875.
We know today that the caffeine in the coffee may have aided his performance, but the other items he ingested were likely detrimental. At the time, no one knew how to fuel the world’s first marathon swim – the research into this new frontier in human physical achievement simply hadn’t been done yet. But that would soon change.
“Historically, rudimentary efforts to sustain exercise stamina, such as beef broth and brandy, slowly crept into research laboratories where scientists attempted to determine which practices worked and why,” said Dr. Bob Murray, an exercise physiologist who served as the founder and director of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute for 23 years before establishing his own sports nutrition consultancy, Sports Science Insights based in Crystal Lake, Illinois, in 2008.
The field of sports nutrition has evolved incrementally over the past 100 years with the use of field-based studies alongside lab science investigating various nutrients. “For example, in the 1920s, runners in the Boston Marathon consumed hard candies to help maintain their blood sugar levels and researchers at Harvard charted their responses,” said Murray.
A similarly scientific approach later led to the development of a revolutionary new sports drink called Gatorade in 1965. It resulted from a collaboration between the football coaches and researchers at the University of Florida. At the time, most coaches didn’t allow their players to drink water or other fluids during games and workouts; they worried about cramping and a drop in performance.
But in Florida’s famous heat, the football team’s performance suffered without fluids. “When the University of Florida scientists started thinking about what their football players could use to improve performance, they immediately went to the scientific literature,” Murray said. “They realized the players needed a little bit of carbohydrate to fuel their muscles and brain and to stimulate rapid absorption in the intestine. But they’re also losing electrolytes through sweating. They figured it was a good idea to put back some sodium, chloride, and potassium.”
That’s how Gatorade became the first sports drink, and it not only helped the Gators win, but also became a cultural phenomenon that remains the most popular sports drink on the market. In 2020, Gatorade held 72.1% of the U.S. sports drink market, according to data from Euromonitor, a London-based market research company.
“The coaches’ acceptance of the idea of keeping their players well-hydrated and fueled not only helped launch the sports drink category but, more importantly in my mind, led to a remarkable transition from the old-school coaching philosophy of depriving athletes of fluid to making sure athletes had easy access to fluids during practices and competition,” Murray explains. That change “saved lives and improved athletes’ ability to train and compete.”
When he started working with Gatorade in 1985, Murray said “our focus was on hydration and the physiology of hydration and the benefits of staying well-hydrated and providing carbohydrates and electrolytes.” The idea was to help athletes avoid the dreaded “bonk,” that moment when the body will no longer perform.
Historically, nutrition snafus have produced some of the most spectacularly cringe-worthy moments in triathlon history. Think Julie Moss’s melted and mostly inedible Snickers bar during the 1982 Kona Championships that led her to infamous crawl to second place. Or Chris Legh’s staggering, near-death collapse due to dehydration in 1997. Both catastrophic bonks have become the stuff of legend but also provided important insight into how best to fuel the human body for endurance sport.
“All of the benefits that we as athletes enjoy today, from a sports nutrition perspective, are the culmination of decades of research that started 100 years ago or more,” Murray said. “Each research project is like a little piece of a much larger puzzle."
What’s in your sports nutrition?
The inventors of Gatorade were on to something, and today, “water, sugar, and salt remain the most important sports nutrition ingredients or products simply because staying well hydrated and supplying active muscles with an extra source of fuel during exercise is associated with well-established benefits to performance and health,” Murray explains.
“In many, but not all, instances, it’s impossible to consume enough real foods to create a benefit, so sports nutrition products solve that dilemma,” said Murray. The body can only absorb roughly 450 calories per hour, depending on the size of the person. But that same person may be expending more than twice that number of calories while exercising, depending on the type of exercise and exertion level. Addressing this fundamental calorie deficit is the aim of any sports nutrition product.
To do that, most endurance fuel products are made up primarily of carbohydrates – sugars – because the body prefers to burn glucose. Sugar also has a mild pain-reliving effect that could allow some athletes to push a little harder, a little longer.
“Usually the carb is going to be some form of glucose and fructose. That’s what it’s boiled down to lately,” said Lisa Wright, a registered dietitian and USA Triathlon and Ironman-certified coach based in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Maltodextrin is a common ingredient in these products. It’s a starch made from chains of glucose. Many endurance sports products also include fructose, a sweeter-tasting carb that’s derived from the sugars found in fruit. Wright points to Maurten, a relatively new product that’s 58% maltodextrin and 42% fructose, as an example of how these types of carbs combine to make a unique sports product.
Another widely used product, Skratch Superfuel, contains “92% Cluster Dextrin, which is their starch component, and 8% fructose, so the much smaller percentage of sugar that would make it taste sweet,” said Wright.
Cluster Dextrin, also called highly-branched cyclic dextrin, packs more calories per molecule than maltodextrin, explains Dr. Allen Lim, physiologist and founder of Skratch Labs. “Other high-carbohydrate solutions typically rely on maltodextrin, which is about a 5- to 15-glucose-unit polysaccharide,” meaning that between 5 and 15 glucose molecules will join up in a long chain that breaks apart in the stomach all at once.
But Cluster Dextrin contains “between 60 to 90 glucose subunits and it’s also wrapped in a cyclic structure, which allows some of the carbohydrate bonds to be protected and digest more slowly,” said Lim. This may cause less gastric distress in some people and prevent spikes in blood sugar while providing steady energy.
To better illustrate this molecular concentration, Lim describes the gut as an airplane that can seat 300 people, “regardless of whether they’re skinny cross-country runners or big sumo wrestlers. There’s 300 seat belts, so there can be only 300 people.”
Lim compares maltodextrin to having 300 sumo wrestlers get on that plane. But Cyclic Dextrin “is like 300 Godzillas.” As the Godzillas break down, they’ll provide more energy per seat than a sumo wrestler, and way more than a skinny cross-country runner.
Electrolytes are also a key component of many sports drinks. “Electrolytes are minerals like sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, calcium and so on,” said Murray. “They’re called electrolytes because they have either positive or negative charge when they’re in solution.”
Electrolytes are essential, performing thousands of different functions in the body. They’re also lost through sweat, so for athletes, especially those sweating heavily in warm conditions, replacing them is critical. Gatorade introduced the world to the concept of electrolytes and how they can impact performance.
While there are several electrolytes the body needs daily – and can extract from the foods we eat normally – the main one athletes need to think about is sodium, said Nancy Clark, a sports nutrition counselor in private practice in the greater Boston area and author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, a seminal text for the sports nutrition field. “When we sweat, we lose proportionately more water than we do sodium,” she said. Keeping the balance of fluid to sodium in the body is critical to maintain in stamina and physical output.
When it comes to race day, you’d best have trained with your nutrition and have several back up plans in case something goes awry, said Clark.
Nailing your nutrition “is absolutely the fourth leg of the race. It’s as important as doing the swimming, the biking, and the running,” said Wright.
But improving overall nutrition day to day is the real key to fueling your best performance, said Clark: “Now people realize that food is fuel and it really impacts performance.” Your next PR starts in the kitchen, not the lab.
The future of sports nutrition
The quest for the next big thing in sports nutrition continues. “The chances for an earth-shattering innovation in sports nutrition is possible, but not probable,” Murray said. “That’s simply because we understand what’s needed during training and competition. In terms of fluid, carbohydrates, electrolytes, we have a pretty good handle on what’s required.”
But any big advances are likely to come in recovery nutrition to help support what he called “optimal adaption to the training stimulus.”
Clark expects the future of sports nutrition to continue moving toward personalized options tailored specifically to the individual’s genetics and goals. As such, she recommends “working with a Registered Dietitian who’s a certified specialist in sports dietetics to create a personalized food plan.” This can make the difference between just finishing a race and truly thriving.
“Sports nutrition has changed a lot because nobody ever used to have a plan. They’d just show up at the start line and survive. Now, more and more, people are realizing that they have a training coach, they might as well have a food coach,” she said.
When working with a new client, Clark often begins by “looking at meal patterns and when people are eating and not so much at what supplements they should be taking.” Not even the best supplement or sports product during a training session or race can make up for inadequate nutrition the rest of the time. “The focus is very much on food and a meal plan that fits their training pattern and their lifestyle.”
In some respects, sports nutrition is coming full circle in the use of simple, whole foods – think a banana or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – rather than complex lab-engineered products. “The whole sports food industry tends to make things very complex,” said Clark. “Real food always outperforms, because the body is used to it. It’s what we eat every day and it doesn’t upset the apple cart.”
She adds, “I’m not anti-supplement. There’s a time and a place for them. But they’re not the first line of fueling.”
Murray agrees. “By far the most important concept to remember is that the greatest benefits to performance come from hard training, adequate rest/sleep, and food-first nutrition.”
And save the brandy and ale for after you’ve reached the finish line.