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Race Fueling

Lionel Sanders Fuels with Maple Syrup. Should You?

Lionel Sanders fueled his way to second place at May's Ironman World Championship race using an unusual (but very Canadian) ingredient. Here's what you need to know about using maple syrup in your triathlon fueling plan.

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When we interviewed Lionel Sanders before the Ironman World Championship race in St. George last May, the conversation was centered around maple syrup. In true Canadian fashion, Sanders really loves the stuff—so much that he based his entire fueling strategy around it.

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For Sanders, this seemed to work. After all, he took second place in the stacked field and challenging conditions in St. George. Naturally, now triathletes are wondering about fueling with maple syrup themselves. At first glance, it may seem sticky and sweet, but then again, so are some gels and other popular sports fueling products. So—if you love maple syrup as much as Sanders, then let’s crunch some numbers, weigh the pros and cons and map out how to integrate it into your race day fueling plan.

RELATED: Triathlete’s Complete Guide to Nutrition and Fueling

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The pros and cons of using maple syrup as sports fuel

To be clear, we are talking about real maple syrup, concentrated sap from maple trees, as opposed to artificial maple syrup, made up of high fructose corn syrup with added colors and flavoring. This is an important distinction, as not all maple syrups are actually maple syrup. When discussing using maple syrup as a fueling strategy for a triathlon, you want to make sure you get the good stuff.

Pros:

  • Maple syrup is 33% water and 67% sugar (sucrose makes up two-thirds of the sugar in maple syrup). Sucrose comprises half glucose and half fructose, is easily metabolized, gentle on the GI system, and stimulates the liver and muscle glycogen during exercise. In short, maple syrup is an effective fuel source during exercise.  
  • Maple syrup falls lower on the glycemic index at 54 due to the small amount of fructose, and contains no fiber. 
  • A bottle of concentrated fuel such as maple syrup is a simple, easy-to-follow fuel plan. A simple fuel plan is advantageous so you can focus on racing well instead of adhering to an unnecessarily complicated fuel plan. 
  • For some, the taste and texture never gets old, even over the course of a day-long Ironman triathlon.

Cons:

  • Maple syrup can be an effective fuel source, but as with all non-liquid sports fuel products consumed alone, it is not hydrating.
  • Consuming a high concentration of carbohydrates (carbs) or maple syrup can lead to dehydration, as fluids are pulled from the bloodstream into the intestine to dilute the hypertonic mixture before the body can absorb it. This can lead to lower gastrointestinal (GI) distress. So, prioritizing a hypotonic sports drink of <5% carb concentration or water by taking frequent sips throughout the workout is key to optimizing hydration and warding off GI issues. 
  • In the interview video, you may have picked up that Sanders added salt to his bottle of maple syrup. Salt, namely sodium, helps offset dehydration by facilitating the absorption of fluids. Since maple syrup doesn’t contain sodium, it must be added to the bottle to counteract dehydration and an eventual decline in performance.
  • During a training session, if the taste is turning you off or your stomach, it’s a check in the “nope” column.

Another glaring drawback of hinging your bike fuel plan on a bottle of maple syrup is that you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. As Sanders experienced at Oceanside 70.3 this year, the unfortunate chance of a road bump ejecting the bottle into the deep abyss is very real. Any time you fuel with something not offered on the course, you risk upsetting your gut when you’re forced to transition to on-course nutrition.

These pros and cons are not intended to convince you to use (or not use) maple syrup in your nutrition and fueling plan for triathlon. Any athlete racing any distance must consider the options for what to eat during a triathlon and choose the one that works best for their own unique needs. Clearly, maple syrup worked for Sanders. If that’s enough evidence for you, then it might be worth trying the sweet stuff in training to see if it’s worth using at your next race.

RELATED: Should I Skip Solid Foods on Race Day?

How does maple syrup compare to typical sports nutrition products?

Comparing maple syrup to well-established and familiar sports products may help integrate it into your current fuel plan. Here are some popular sports fueling products.

Sport Nutrition Product Carbs
.5 oz (1 tbsp) maple syrup 13g
1 gel 20-25g
1 Clif Blok 8g
1 Gatorade chew 4g
1 Honey Stinger waffle 21g
1 Gu Chomp 5.75g
1 Skratch chew 4g
1 Bonk Breaker cew 7.5g
1/2 Clif sports bar 20-21.5g

What about honey?

You may be wondering, what about honey? At a glance, honey and maple syrup seem similar, but they aren’t. Honey is higher on the glycemic index than maple syrup. Honey is mostly fructose, which attributes to the sweet taste. To convert fructose into glucose (useable energy), it must go to the liver first. This process is slow, may lead to GI distress, and causes a decrease in glucose availability for the working muscles.

How to use maple syrup for triathlon fuel

If you fall in the category of “Yes, I’m channeling my inner Canadian and really like the stuff more than just on waffles and toast,” here’s what you need to know to incorporate it into your race day fuel plan. 

1 Tablespoon (TBSP) maple syrup = 13g carb, 52 calories; 1 tablespoon = 0.5 ounces. 

Recommended sports fueling per hour of exercise/racing:

  • Up to 2.5 hours:  30-60g carb, 250-1000mg sodium and 20-32oz fluid.
  • 2.5 hours or more: 60-90g carb, 400-1,000+ mg sodium and 20-32oz fluid

Sports fueling guidelines, using maple syrup:

  • 30g carb/hour = 1 tbsp every 25 minutes
  • 40g carb/hour = 1 tbsp every 20 minutes
  • 50g carb/hour = 1 tbsp every 15 minutes
  • 60g carb/hour = 1 tbsp approx. every 12-13 minutes

Keep in mind that doling out one-tablespoon servings of maple syrup at regular intervals doesn’t have to be complicated. One “gulp” of syrup from a bottle is approximately 1 tablespoon, or 0.5 ounces, though this will vary from person to person.

Although you may love maple syrup enough to take a swig every 12-13 minutes for an Ironman bike leg, increasing the frequency and intake above 60g carb per hour may be an overload in maple goodness. And taking in more than one gulp (up towards 20g carb/serving) of syrup at once will over-concentrate the gut, creating a hypertonic environment that leads to the gut shutting down.  

Remember, you don’t necessarily need to scratch an entire successful triathlon fueling plan for maple syrup. Instead, you might begin with supplementing maple syrup in place of one fuel source (like a gel or chews), but keep your hypotonic sports drink. Or you could start by substituting maple syrup in place of a sports product for one hour of a long ride, then resume your tried-and-true plan. Play around with fueling in training until you find a system that works for you during race-like conditions and effort. 

In creating a successful sports fueling plan, determining what you like and will actually eat is the first key to compliance, but equally as important is how the body responds and what will be the easiest to use and execute on race day. The simpler the plan, the easier it is to pull off, so you can shift your focus to race execution and mindset.

Boost your maple syrup fuel with hydration and sodium

A well-formulated sports fuel/hydration plan isn’t complete without sodium. Sanders mixed sodium in his maple syrup bottle, which sounds like a yummy concoction of salty and sweet. Depending on your sweat rate, session duration, and heat/humidity, you’ll likely need to add an appropriate amount of sodium to support your body’s needs and performance. 

RELATED: How Much Salt Do You Need While Training and Racing?

For every 12.5 g carbs or a gulp of maple syrup, we need at least 6-8 ounces of water or hypotonic sports drink to promote gastric emptying, optimize hydration, and ward off GI distress. So, always have water handy on your bike for early and often sipping throughout the workout.

The bottom line on maple syrup for triathlon fuel

Just because a particular fuel source works for a pro or your training buddy doesn’t mean it’s right for you. No matter your fuel strategy, make sure it’s palatable, easy to follow, and meets your body’s needs. When introducing a new sports fuel, start with shorter, supporting aerobic sessions and, if you get a green light, extend to longer, race-like training sessions. Finally, repeatedly test drive your sports fuel plan in training so you can dial in the right combination of fuel that will serve you best on race day.

Susan Kitchen is a Sports Certified Registered Dietitian, USA Triathlon and Ironman Certified Coach, accomplished endurance athlete, and published author. She is the owner of Race Smart, an endurance coaching and performance nutrition company that works with athletes across the globe as they strive toward optimal health, fitness, and performance.