Maple Syrup: The Fuel of Choice for Performance

Sarah Sung
by Sarah Sung
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Maple Syrup: The Fuel of Choice for Performance

Maple syrup isn’t just for breakfast anymore. Sure, it’s great on pancakes and waffles, but there’s so much potential in this antioxidant-rich superfood that you might not know about (unless you’re from New England, in which case, it probably runs in your blood and you know you’re stronger for it).

Beyond being a healthier alternative to sugar, maple syrup is becoming a go-to energy source for endurance athletes who prefer whole, natural foods over refined, processed gels and bars. “It’s still concentrated energy in the form of sugar; just cleaner and simpler than premade pouches … produced naturally from tree sap, ” says registered dietitian Sidney Fry.

ALL THE BENEFITS

As far as sugar goes, maple syrup is an all-natural, minimally processed option that’s basically evaporated maple sap. This means minerals like iron, calcium, zinc, manganese and potassium are left intact. For an athlete, this mineral cocktail may help promote energy production as well as muscle recovery, however its trace amounts aren’t likely to make a huge impact during training or a race.

“During races and other super high-intensity workouts that rapidly deplete our energy stores (glycogen), our body responds best to easily-absorbable calories, preferably in the form of carbohydrates,” says Fry. “It’s one of the few times your body actually needs sugar more than it needs fiber- or protein-packed foods for energy and sustenance.”

Maple syrup is also low on the glycemic index, which means it’s a great source of prolonged energy. “Maple syrup has a glycemic index of 55 — that’s 11 points lower than table sugar — meaning it takes just a wee bit longer to break down (but it’s still rapid enough to refuel muscles during races), prolonging the available fuel-time it has to offer hard-at-work muscles. The lower the GI of a food, the less impact it has on overall blood sugar,” explains Fry. “Maintaining steady levels of blood sugar keeps our bodies more regulated than when sugars spike and plummet — another important factor during an important race.”

Finally, maple syrup is water soluble, which makes it easy to digest and quick to absorb. “Products like GU and other 100-calorie energy pouches are typically some combination of sugar, electrolytes (sodium and potassium), calcium, water and other various extracts and preservatives — I’ve seen nearly 20 ingredients on some pouches. They’re highly processed and expensive for something that’s really just delivering 100 calories of quick energy,” says Fry. “Maple syrup offers the same objective in just one clean, naturally-packaged ingredient. In fact, some of the other extracts, ingredients and additives found in pouches are more inclined to cause GI distress in the middle of your race (including those with higher levels of fructose).”

Photo credit: UnTapped

THE FUEL OF CHOICE FOR ATHLETES

We sat down with the founder of UnTapped All-Natural Athletic Fuel, New Hampshire-native and former pro-cyclist Ted King to talk about fueling with real food, specifically maple syrup.

Q: The simplicity of it is so refreshing in the sports nutrition world. Why maple syrup?

King: I was born and raised in New Hampshire. My mom’s best friend’s father was a grandfather figure to me, and he lived in central New Hampshire. We’d visit his maple sugaring shed in the spring, and it was so etherial to go into the cabin. You see the syrup, smell it, sip hot maple syrup … It stuck with me. Even then, I knew the difference between the real ingredient and the fake, unfortunate stuff that goes onto pancakes these days.

When I was a pro cyclist living in Europe, I’d stockpile maple syrup to take to Europe for 5–10 months. I still had a normal relationship with maple syrup back then. People I didn’t know would show up with some at races. Once, I Googled “nutrition and maple syrup” and found out about electrolytes, amino acids, antioxidants — and that it’s water soluble, which makes it easy to digest. I was sick of the industry-standard gels I’d have to choke down.

Q: Untapped is really taking off. How did this all come about?

King: Back training in New Hampshire with Tim Johnson, we rode 200 on 100 (a 200-mile ride from the Canadian border on Vermont Route 100 to Massachusetts). On that ride — through social media — people would meet us for beer and maple syrup. Tim was bonking and came from the dead with 2–3 sips of syrup. It really struck me that maple syrup is more than just a pancake topper!

In fall 2013, during the off-season, I shopped my maple syrup idea around at farmers markets because I wanted to make it portable. Finally after two off-seasons and no bandwidth, I mentioned to a friend who was the Nordic Ski Coach at Middlebury who suggested I talk to the Cochrons (a family with Olympic golds in skiing). Four cousins my age were retired skiers producing maple syrup on the family’s ski hill in Vermont. It just made sense: Athletes talking to athletes.

We wondered whether other people would get it, but then our crowd-funding campaign raised $35,000, and we were able to launch at the 2014 Tour de France and went well over $50,000. It was just a side-hustle for us, and we still continued to grow.

Q: Have you always veered toward real, whole foods in your career? In life?

King: There’s so much mindless eating in general. Chefs who are into sports nutrition are helping to change that mindset. You wouldn’t serve an exquisite Italian pasta made with 00 flour topped off with fake cheese out of a can …

Your body burns hot when firing on all cylinders, so athletes throw whatever they can at it: bacon, Ho Hos, etc. When you burn 800–1,000 calories/hour, it’s not sustainable to use fake sugars and marginal products. It’s better to opt for real food instead of Ho Hos.

Q: The idea of real, whole foods for performance is a hurdle after all of the marketing around performance gels and bars. What’s your message for changing that?

King: It’s a matter of educating the audience. Athletes mindlessly take a gel because their peers do it — and the industry tells them to. Real food is real nutrition. Sports foods with 12 ingredients to digest compared to one simple ingredient should be a no-brainer. Maple syrup is a superfood, with all the benefits and antioxidants that counteract free radicals. It was reserved for breakfast for too long.


READ MORE > WHAT CYCLING PROS EAT FOR BREAKFAST


Q: Low glycemic, antioxidants, amino acids, minerals … why is maple syrup so unsung? What have you experienced to be the biggest performance benefit?

King: One major performance benefit is that it’s low glycemic — I consume fewer calories because it provides longer distribution of energy. Hunger is staved off by eating real food. Also when you take so much sugar, you suffer from gut rot. Maple syrup will not do it. It’s water soluble.

There’s simplicity in real food.

 Photo credit: Velocio

About the Author

Sarah Sung
Sarah Sung

An avid runner, cyclist, swimmer, yogi and all-around gym rat, Sarah has written lifestyle, health and fitness content for publications including AFAR, San Francisco Chronicle, Sonima and UrbanDaddy. In her spare time she teaches indoor cycling in San Francisco and has raced in triathlons in California and Hawaii. Traveling and checking out the latest dining scene are always high on her to-do list.

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