Sugar causes problems mostly outside of exercise
We discussed the dangers of sugar in the previous article. It’s not a pretty picture when you see sugar associated with weight gain and a variety of diseases. But it’s important to note that these problems arise when added sugar is consumed at rest. Your body usually doesn’t need a lot of quick and easy-to-absorb sugar, most of which you burn fat while sitting or walking. The added sugar is not immediately needed by the muscles or to replenish glycogen stores when resting. So when you have a sugary snack or drink, it ends up building up in your bloodstream. This means your body has to produce extra insulin to cope, which can lead to problems over time. Fortunately, it’s a different story when you take in sugar while exercising.
Sugar allows you to push hard
When you start pedaling and increase the intensity, your body will gradually increase the proportion of glucose, a type of simple sugar, it burns for energy and decreases the proportion of fat. When you reach your aerobic threshold, your body relies almost exclusively on glucose for energy. It’s clear that when you really want to push yourself and go fast, you need sugar. In the first 60-90 minutes of exercise, this sugar can come solely from your own muscle glycogen stores, but it can also be added by eating or drinking.
Sugar can prevent bonking
After about 60-90 minutes of cycling at a moderate to high intensity, the average person is likely to start experiencing what would be known as “bonking”. This is where glycogen begins to be depleted and the body cannot maintain the same level of power. You are forced to slow down and your body has to go back to using a higher proportion of fat as an energy source. If you want to push yourself for longer, you need to get extra sugar in the form of energy gels and drinks. This time, the sugar goes directly to the muscle to be used as energy.
This is when being anti-sugar can become a problem. If you decide to cut sugar out of your life completely, you put yourself at a higher risk of getting stuck in races and you’ll be able to spend less time at high intensity in training.
Sugar helps you recover faster for the next day’s ride
Nor should we forget the third use of sugar when it comes to exercise. When you spend several hours in the saddle riding hard, you are likely to deplete many of your sugar stores in the form of glycogen. Your body will start to replenish those energy stores when the ride is over, but if you give it a quick sugar boost, it will go faster. This is exactly why you see Peter Sagan swallowing a handful of gummy bears at the end of a stage of the Tour de France.
When you need to perform at a high level two days in a row, it’s important to help your body quickly replenish glycogen. This mainly applies to cyclists competing in stage races, or during training camps or cycling holidays. If you have a day or two off between your trips, you don’t have to worry so much about speeding up this process.
Exercise is the place of sugar
In short, sugar is important for intense exercise and can be beneficial if you want to perform at a high level. There are three main scenarios where it makes sense to use added sugar.
- Just before an intense ride to replenish your glycogen stores
- During a hard workout or a race that will last more than 60 minutes
- Right after a hard workout or race if you need to recover well for the next day
We must not forget that sugar can still cause cavities even when consumed on the bike. Also, even lifelong athletes can develop type 2 diabetes if they overindulge in sugar. In the last article in the series, we’ll look at how to reduce sugar consumption as low as possible but still enjoy fast and long trips.