When fueling up for a long run or ride or recovering from a lung-busting sweat-fest, put down the Gatorade and peel a banana instead. A new study of trained endurance cyclists found that bananas, along with plain water, work just as well as the sugary technicolor sports drink to provide energy for prolonged, intense exercise. Researchers gave one group half a banana and one cup of water and the other group Gatorade before, after, and every 15 minutes during 75-kilometer time trials. The two carbohydrate sources yielded almost identical performance benefits, such as increased glutathione production and protection against inflammation and oxidative stress.
Since you already know bananas are nutrient bombs, this might not seem like rocket science. But it was the efficient rate of carbohydrate absorption – despite the fact that the body has to work harder to digest bananas than Gatorade – that raised researchers’ eyebrows. “No one had ever tested whether the carbohydrates from bananas are bioavailable enough to support high-intensity exercise,” says David Nieman, lead study author and director of Appalachian State University’s Human Performance Laboratory.
Turns out they are, thanks to their multiple forms. “There are many different absorption sites and receptors in the small intestines, and if you use a variety of carbohydrates, you wind up getting more into intestines than if you use one type of carb,” Neiman says. “Bananas have a perfect carb cocktail of glucose, fructose, and sucrose. Plus, they come packaged with other nutrients exercisers need like potassium, vitamin B6 and polyphenols.”
One issue the banana-eating cyclists had was bloat. But Nieman says this was because they were given the equivalent of seven bananas throughout the study – many more than necessary for most bike rides and almost all runs. “A serious runner may go out for 45 to 90 minutes, and they don’t really need the carb boost during that time,” he says. “But if you eat a banana with a few cups of water before or immediately after running – or both – you’re healthier for it.”
Since smart athletes want fuel that promotes both immediate and long-term health, Nieman expects the trend toward real foods for exercise instead of lab-created products to gain serious momentum. “I think the days of drinking brightly colored sports drinks are drawing to a close,” he says.
Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll see the Super Bowl–winning coach pelted with bananas rather than receiving that ice-cold 10-gallon Gatorade bath.