Why Sugar Should Be Part of Your Workout

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For years you’ve been told that the empty calories found in candy and soda are pretty much the root of all evil. After all, diets high in sugar are linked to obesity and diabetes. So what’s up with the built dudes and competitive runners traipsing around after the gym holding bags of gummy bears and Pixy Stix like they just left a five-year-old’s birthday party? Well, believe it or not, there’s some legitimate justification for popping a jelly bean or two in the name of post-workout recovery. You just have to know how to time it.

Carbohydrates and Workout Nutrition

Your body needs carbohydrates to fuel your workout and to help you recover after exercise. While high-quality complex carbs (whole grains, fruits, and vegetables), should be your go-to sources for carb consumption, you need faster-digesting carbs during and following a workout to maximize performance and recovery.

Fast-digesting, simple carbs come in many forms, including cereals, breads, and, yep, candy. These highly refined carbs are converted quickly to glucose, and once that’s done, your body treats all carbs the same, whether they come from candy or broccoli. But your exercise habit doesn’t give you carte blanche to Pac-Man your way through the candy aisle. Outside the brief window surrounding your workout, there’s little justification for eating the sweet stuff. “The American Heart Association recommends men limit their sugar intake to about 36 grams a day,” says Kim Feeney, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. “This is about 15 Hershey’s Kisses, six Jolly Ranchers, 26 Gummy Bears, three Pixy Stix, or just over one Snickers Bar.” And that’s your added sugar allotment for the whole day. So if you’re going to use candy as a workout recovery tool, follow Feeney’s tips.

If You’re a Gym Rat

“For athletes completing shorter workouts lasting less than 90 minutes, I recommend including candy after a workout,” Feeney says. “After a workout, an athlete’s body can use the sugar to help restore carbohydrate stores.”

During heavy strength-training and HIIT sessions, your body uses blood glucose and stored muscle glycogen to provide a fast-acting source of energy. When your workout is complete, your body needs to replenish its stores, so eating simple sugars is a fast and effective way to re-up.

Eating candy or other simple carbs spikes your blood sugar, which, in turn, releases insulin into your bloodstream. It all gets pretty complicated, but here’s the short version:

When you place your body under physical stress, your body releases cortisol, which plays a role in breaking down muscle tissue. This is good in the sense that you need to undergo some muscle breakdown to stimulate cellular repair and, ultimately, muscle growth, but you don’t want to let cortisol just run amuck in your system for any longer than necessary. By using simple carbs to spike your blood sugar post-workout, your body releases insulin, which facilitates the shuttling of proteins and carbohydrates into your muscles to maximize muscle protein synthesis and repair. In other words, timed correctly, a little bit of candy might actually help spur post-workout recovery and growth.

If You’re an Endurance Athlete

Long-distance runners and cyclists, on the other hand, might be best served to carry jelly beans or other easily transportable candy with them to eat during exercise, versus immediately afterward. “During long workouts, athletes need at least 30 grams of carbohydrate an hour to stay fueled,” Feeney says.

The overall concepts are the same as for strength athletes, but the needs are somewhat different. You see, your stores of muscle glycogen are limited, and the longer you push yourself at high intensities during a workout, the more likely you are to use up all your stores. When this happens, you “hit the wall” or “bonk,” which is pretty much the worst case scenario for long-distance athletes. Once you bonk, you’re toast. You may be able to finish a training session at a snail’s pace, but you’re not going to be able to perform with speed.

So, if your workout is edging closer to two hours, you’re working out at high intensity, or you’re exercising in hot climates, you need to consume easily digestible carbohydrates to supply your body with glucose as fuel. Candy is just the most fun way to do that. “However, athletes also need to include a sodium source, such as an electrolyte beverage or sports chews, as candy typically lacks the sodium needed for longer workouts,” Feeney says. So instead of regular ol’ candy, you may want to satisfy your sweet tooth with something like Sport Beans, which are basically Jelly Beans with added electrolytes and vitamins.