Nutrition Hack: Potatoes Instead of Gels?

potatoes for energy during exercise

Sport supplements and nutrition are expensive. Here’s one proven, cost effective alternative to keep your energy high. 


The performance-enhancing power of the almighty carb has been validated in scientific research 1000 times over.

We know that carbs can quickly be turned into energy. We understand that they are essential before, during and after exercise. And it’s clear that as your training increases in volume and intensity, so too does the amount of carbohydrate needed to perform at your best.  

Research aside, you’ve felt the power of carbs (maybe in their absence). Every time you feel the dreaded bonk, reach for a sports drink or bar, and realize you’re out of that magic sauce, you’re reminded of how much energy is stored away in just a few grams.  

And the variety and effectiveness of carbohydrate-rich fuel sources has only improved. From energy bars to gels and goos to every type of powder imaginable, there is no limit on the types of products that are proven to aid athlete performance before, during, and after exercise. 

...But it’s not all sunshine and roses. 

All those gooey packets are pricey, messy, and and sometimes a little too sweet. Looking for something else to curb the bonk that conveniently fits in the pocket of your jersey? 

Look no further than the humble potato.  

Study shows that potatoes pack the same punch as energy gels 

can you eat potatoes during exercise

Researchers at the University of Illinois recruited 12 highly trained cyclists. Each averaged 165 miles a week and had a low body fat percentage and high VO2max.

These participants were randomly assigned into one of three groups:

  • Water
  • Carbohydrate gel
  • Or a potato-puree containing the equivalent amount of carbohydrate as the gel. 

Leading up to the experiment, nutrition and exercise were controlled for each athlete. They all ate standardized meals, abstained from drinking alcohol, and avoided exercise for 48 hours before the trial. 

The trial consisted of a 120-minute cycling challenge and a time trial to assess performance in the three groups. Researchers monitored cyclists blood glucose, core body temperature, exercise intensity, and gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms. 

Unsurprisingly, both the potato and the gel group outperformed the water group. But what was exciting was the level of performance of the potato group. According to lead researcher Nicholas Burd, 

"Both groups saw a significant boost in performance that those consuming only water did not achieve."

Athletes who received the recommended 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour, whether sourced from potatoes or gels, experienced higher plasma glucose concentrations, increased heart rates, and a faster time in the time trial. 

The future of the potato in athletic performance 

Potatoes have a ton going for them. They are dirt cheap, nutritious, and with a little salt and butter, totally delicious. And Burd’s study proves that they are also an effective way to fuel training and racing. 

All of this might make you wonder what role the potato might play in athletic nutrition.

It’s worth noting that the potato group did experience more GI symptoms, like cramping and bloating, than the gel group.

Burd hypothesized that this discomfort was due to the large volume of potatoes needed to match the carbohydrate in the gels.

A medium sized potato has about 37 g CHO, meaning you’d need to eat about a potato and a half every hour for optimal nutrition. As you can imagine, fueling with potatoes might be a little impractical at this point. 

However, this research could inspire future potato products that are cheap, savory, and nutritious.

But for the time being, you shouldn’t think twice about dropping last night’s baked potato or a bag of chips into your jersey pocket for a mid-ride snack. 

About The Author: 

Matt Mosman (MS, CISSN, CSCS) is a research scientist, endurance athlete, and the founder and Chief Endurance Officer at EndurElite. Matt holds his B.S. in Exercise Science from Creighton University and his M.S. in Exercise Physiology from the University of California.  Matt and his family reside in Spearfish South Dakota, where they enjoy running, mountain biking, camping, and all the outdoor adventures Spearfish has to offer.

References:

  • 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. Potato ingestion is as effective as carbohydrate gels to support prolonged cycling performance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2019; DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00567.2019
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, News Bureau. "Potato as effective as carbohydrate gels for boosting athletic performance, study finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 October 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/10/191018125512.htm>.

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