You may be surprised to learn that the most decadent component in a stack of pancakes actually has health benefits. Maple syrup—the thing your parents told you to “go easy on”—has become an essential ingredient for some high-performing athletes.
The syrup is, yes, mostly sugar. And that’s exactly what the sporty set is banking on. “Glycogen—from carbohydrates—is our main energy source during activity,” says Sarah Koszyk, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist in San Francisco. “Midrace, our bodies want easily absorbed carbohydrate sources so muscles can use the fuel right away. Maple syrup can be one of those sources.”
Rather than taking pulls straight from the bottle, companies like UnTapped sell single-serving packets made for consumption midrun or -cycle. Some athletes prefer it to sports gels; it may be easier on the digestive system than the lab-made stuff, and it’s palatable—especially in the latter part of a race when nothing tastes very good. (Maple syrup doesn’t contain a ton of electrolytes, so you may need a sports drink as well, Koszyk says.)
The tree sap has a host of vitamins and minerals, too. A quarter cup contains more than a day’s worth of manganese, a mineral that strengthens bones and helps the body process cholesterol. It also offers zinc (an immune system booster), potassium (reduces blood pressure), and calcium (great for muscle function). Maple syrup ranks low on the glycemic index, giving you a steady stream of energy rather than a sugar rush followed by a crash. And, unlike honey, it’s vegan.
There are different flavor profiles of pure maple syrup—golden, amber, dark, very dark. Healthwise, it’s all the same, though research from Kindai University in Japan suggests that the darker the syrup, the more cancer-fighting antioxidants it has. Glance at the ingredients list, since cheaper brands cut the pure stuff with corn syrup and artificial flavors.
And if you have any left over postrace, feel free to pour it on a celebratory waffle.