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5 Whole-Food Alternatives to Sports Products

by Brooke Schohl, MS, RD | For Active.com

Sport products serve one purpose: to refuel and rehydrate athletes, and in turn lead to improved endurance and performance. A plethora of ergogenic aids—substances used for the purpose of enhancing performance—are available, including sports drinks, chews, beans, bars, powders, tablets and waffles. These items contain antioxidants, quickly digestible sugars and plenty of electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium.

But there are also many whole foods that naturally contain those same nutrients and serve the same function as sports products. The following are five whole-food alternatives worth trying.

Coconut Water
This beverage has exploded onto the marketplace as a natural way to rehydrate and replace lost electrolytes. It's equipped with potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus, as well as B vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes and antioxidants. It provides energy in the form of carbohydrates.

What it doesn't have: artificial flavors, sweeteners and colors. Most importantly, it's comprised of one ingredient: coconut water. The Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition found coconut water to be as effective as a carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drinks in promoting rehydration and supporting subsequent exercise.

Dried Fruit
This chewy snack comes complete with a natural-sugar source and the added benefit of vitamins and minerals. The Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition found that both raisins and sports chews improve running performance, with no significant differences in gastrointestinal distress. In a raisin-verses-gel showdown, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research discovered no metabolic or performance differences between the tested food items.

Baby Food Pure
Baby-food pure offers carbs, vitamins and minerals. Many brands sell it in a convenient twist-top pouch, too. Just be sure the ingredient list is short, and there are no added sugars. Electrolytes should be supplemented with this item when necessary.

Calorie-dense, packed with potassium, and loaded with easily digestible sugars, this old favorite stands up to its reputation. The PLOS ONE Journal recently found cyclists to have comparable performance when fueling with bananas or sports drinks. An added bonus: they're easy to carry.

Homemade Bars and Snacks
If you want to control the ingredients going into your training fuel, check out sport-specific cookbooks such as Biju Thomas and Allen Lima's The Feed Zone Portables. It offers plenty of compact, whole-food recipes complete with all of the energy perks of packaged sports products. Get creative with post-workout shakes. Blend your own concoction by using nutrient-dense ingredients, such as fruit, greens, coconut oil, almond milk, flaxseed and spice extracts.

Remember: You call the shots when it comes to your nutrition. Trial and error is important in determining what types of fuel work best for you. Keep in mind that although the sports-product market is abundant, there are plenty of natural options to keep you well-fueled on the racecourse and performing at your highest level.

Brooke Schohl is a registered sports dietitian and the owner of Fuel to the Finish Endurance Nutrition Coaching/Destination Kona Triathlon Store in Scottsdale, Arizona. She is an avid triathlete, having recently completed her third Ironman. She integrates that personal experience and knowledge into developing customized, sport-specific fueling plans for her clients.