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Peter Sagan gave fans plenty to talk about last weekend, first with his thrilling sprint victory at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and then the sight of him unabashedly stuffing his face with fistfuls of Haribo gummy bears shortly after crossing the line.
Most of us are used to thinking of gummy bears as a childhood treat, those colorful little morsels releasing oodles of fruit-flavored goodness with every chew. A star like Sagan certainly has every possible nutritional aid at his disposal, so to see him chow down on candy in the moments after a five-hour effort might seem… unusual.
According to exercise physiologist and Skratch Labs co-founder Dr. Allen Lim, though, there’s some sound science to justify reaching for a bag of Haribos after a grueling day in the saddle.
Basically, while there are all sorts of fancy recovery drinks and formulas out there, sometimes there’s just no substitute for good old sugar.
Protein vs. sugars
Protein is often associated with recovery after hard workouts, being the primary building block for repairing muscle damage after especially intense efforts. But Lim says that for highly seasoned and conditioned endurance athletes like Sagan, it’s actually just straight-up calories that are much more important.
“Recovery, at least for endurance athletes, is more about refueling, rather than rebuilding or building,” he said. “Cycling doesn’t do much of any muscle damage if you’re really adapted to it. In cycling, you’re not breaking down muscle; you’re depleting fuel sources. The primary fuel that these guys burn is carbohydrate, fat, and maybe a little bit of protein.
“[For Sagan], I’d say that 60% of the fuel he used while out there was carbohydrate, maybe 30% was maybe fat stores, and then maybe — at most — 5% percent of his fuel was to liberate amino acids from muscle, especially because he’s such a fit athlete and so well adapted to cycling.”
Lim recalls when he was working at the Tour de France for various teams that he would immediately give his riders 1-1.5 liters of a salt-infused, 10% sugar solution — about 400 calories — which he says was the perfect mixture to start the glycogen resynthesis process.
“I think people misunderstand what recovery is,” he explained. “If you were to do a study to look at how quickly people can recover from something, you would do a bout of exercise of some sort and then evaluate different strategies. If you’re completely recovered, then you’re going to be able to do the same task you did prior in the same timeframe; if you’re not recovered, you won’t be able to. To be able to repeat an exercise task, the rate limiting factor is not building new muscle — or even rebuilding muscle, because only in very extreme circumstances do you actually catabolize muscle when you exercise. The real key to recovering is refueling, and how quickly you can refill your tank.”
On Haribo vs. Coca-Cola, and Haribo vs. Haribo
That Sagan immediately took in a bunch of sugar after winning KBK shouldn’t really come as a shock. A serving of Haribo gummy bears has almost the same number of calories and the same carbohydrate mix as a more iconic post-ride refreshment for cyclists — a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola.
That said, all sugars are not created equal, and Lim suggests you take note of what kind of sugar you’re taking in after that next hard ride. Sagan almost certainly was eating European Haribo gummy bears, which are made with glucose syrup and fructose derived from fruit juices. In contrast, American Haribo candies (and American Coca-Cola) use a much higher concentration of fructose, in the form of corn syrup.
“You have three transporters of sugar across the small intestine: you have a glucose transporter, a fructose transporter, and a galactose transporter, for milk sugar. The more transporters you can take advantage of, the faster you can raise that blood sugar and get that stuff in you. The European Haribo has more of a combination of fructose and glucose, whereas with the American Haribo, you’re mostly relying on fructose.”
Either way, the moral of the story is that while the sight of Sagan scarfing down a bunch of Haribo might have seemed unusual, there was nothing strange about it from a physiological standpoint. If anything, says Lim, he should have perhaps eaten more, given what he did that day.
Few of us are burning as many calories as Sagan did at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, though, so while there’s nothing wrong with noshing on a few gummy bears after your next ride, be realistic about your actual needs — everything in moderation, after all.