Real Food VS Sports Nutrition Products

By Dr. Cassie Maximenko

Athletes ask me all the time “what do you think of XYZ product?” and my answer is almost always “Well, that depends…”

Sports nutrition products come in all different forms with many different claims and purposes.  So when is the right time to consume something from a package versus real food?

I think the first thing to look at is the circumstances around your consumption of any food.  Timing is a big part of that decision. If you’re looking to eat something mere minutes before hitting the trail…a home made sandwich is not likely going to be the right choice.  Your gut requires energy, blood flow and rest to properly digest complex foods like a sandwich. Two hours prior to hitting the trail, that could be a great choice however minutes prior there are faster absorbing options that won’t ruin your trail sesh.

So, in the minutes before heading out for a workout the only thing your gut will really be able to process is something extremely simple like an energy gel, chews or an electrolyte drink with some added calories.  You really want to avoid things with fiber, protein and fat immediately before exercise because these things slow down digestion. This means it will be sloshing around in your stomach and you won’t be absorbing those valuable nutrients, particularly sugar and electrolytes.  Your gut may even protest by cramping or worse, sending that food right back up where it came from.

These are also excellent choices during high intensity workouts for the same reasons listed above.  If you’re sending all of your blood to your muscles and your heart rate and breathing rate are elevated, it will be very hard for your gut to process real solid food.  So yes, there is a time and place for sports nutrition products!

So when can we enjoy real food?  I always recommend eating something real before exercise if timing allows.  Ideally 2 hours before is the closest to a workout that you’d want to consume a meal but you can get away with something small about an hour out from start time.  You can also carry real food for lower intensity and/or longer rides. If I’m going to ride for 2 or more hours, there’s a good chance the intensity will not be so high that I can’t digest real food.  So what do you eat? Here’s a recipe for my favorite, a pumpkin oatmeal bar that combines a variety of nutrients, is easy to make and packs away in a jersey pocket for mid-ride snacking!


1 1/2 c instant oats (I use Gluten free but you don’t have to!)

1/2 c almond or peanut butter

1 c canned pumpkin

1 egg

1/2 banana mashed

1 Tbsp cinnamon

1 tsp Nutmeg

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 c Raisins or other dried fruit

Optional: sprinkle in some unsweetened shredded coconut.

Combine all ingredients into a large bowl and mix well until combined.  

Spray an 8” x 8” pan with cooking spray (preferably coconut oil) and press mix into pan.

Bake at 350 degrees until cooked through the center, about 20 min. They can be modified into “cookies” by taking out the baking soda and forming them into bite size cookies on a baking sheet.

Once cooked, allow to cool a few minutes before cutting into 9-12 bars.  After cutting, allow them to cool completely before removing from the pan.  

The bars will last about 1 week in the fridge or 2 months if frozen.  I generally eat 1 bar per hour on long, low intensity rides or hikes.

No time to bake?  Other handy options are dried fruit like apricots, a nut butter and jelly sandwich, a small baked potato (not kidding, cut it in half and sprinkle some salt on that sucker!).  You can also make “rice cakes” which are composed of fresh cooked sticky rice pressed into a pan in a thin layer and then spread a layer of your favorite filling like some jam or mini chocolate chips and a sprinkle of salt, then top with another thin layer of rice and press.  Once cooled these can be cut into little cakes, yum!

Variety is certainly key to prevent flavor fatigue and if you plan to do a race it’s very helpful to test your exact race-day strategy while training to make sure it agrees with your palate and your gut.  

Happy pedaling everyone!

Dr Cassie Maximenko, also known as “Dr Max”, is a Chiropractic Physician at Dembski Chiropractic in Southbury, CT.  She has been practicing there for over 8 years and has Masters degrees in Sports Health Care and Nutrition. As a physician, Dr Max focuses on treating the whole person not just the pain so she also offers nutritional counseling for a variety of issues and for sports performance.

She is involved in the cycling community as a professional cyclist, primarily competing in Cyclocross events across the country and coaches a local kids mountain bike team through the Connecticut Cycling Advancement Program.  Dr. Max also coaches a small group of adult athletes through her small coaching business, TriMax-Training.  From beginner triathletes to professional level cyclists, she works with anyone looking to improve their performance and attain any goal big or small.

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