Humble spud muscles in on pasta to fuel athletic performance

Performance is not only about fuelling up with pasta and sports drinks as popular memes about sports nutrition suggest.

New research from the Australian Catholic University, published in Nutrients, shows potatoes can also make a substantial contribution to the fuel needs of high-performance marathon runners and race walkers.

A well-chosen eating plan can help an athlete train harder, recover faster and push themselves to greater limits without succumbing to illness or injury.

As the former head of sports nutrition at the Australian Institute of Sport and now chair of nutrition at ACU’s Mary Mackillop Institute for Health Research, Professor Louise Burke has been at the forefront of performance-enhancing nutrition.

A world leading expert in sports nutrition, Professor Burke has spent the past 40 years tweaking the diets of local and international elite athletes for better performance.

After her recent research refuted social media claims about the performance benefits of keto and high-fat diets, her team turned its focus to finding out how well athletes could tolerate very high carbohydrate intakes during periods of intensified training or carb-loading for an endurance race.

The research, funded by the Alliance for Potato Research and Education, found carb-rich diets, targeting the intensified fuel needs of training, and racing for high performance endurance athletes, can be practical and well-tolerated.

In addition to studying gut issues and fuel use with the increased role of carb sources in the everyday diet and during exercise, researchers explored the value of the humble spud in fuelling athletic performance in the same way pasta and rice does.

Pasta or rice-based dishes are typical “go to” foods in fuel-rich training meals or pre-race carbohydrate loading menus, with sugar-rich drinks, sports foods, gels and confectionery also contributing to targets for increased carbohydrate.

In endurance events – 90 minutes or longer – when the body’s own fuel supplies are limited, targeted carbohydrate intake becomes increasingly important.

“A lot of athletes don’t think of potatoes when they think of a carbohydrate-rich diet, but we were able to show they can be a major source of carbohydrate that is versatile, practical and really well-liked,” Professor Burke said.

“The research shows potato-based carbohydrates can provide similar benefits to rice and pasta as a different and practical source of food intake for athletes and menus can be expanded to recognise the contribution of potatoes.”

The study tracked elite-level male class race walkers and top-level male and female marathon runners in four-week training camps.

Main meal options and snacks integrated into the carbohydrate-rich fuelling menus included steamed new potatoes, potato wedges, oven baked fries, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes with fillings, frittata, hashed browns, and potato bread.

The study protocol increased carbohydrate intake in the whole day menu during a period of high-volume training, as well as maximising intake during exercise sessions and in a special race plan.

Co-author Andy King said a major consideration was to see how well-tolerated the super high-carb, potato-based diets were, particularly during periods of high-intensity exercise.

“Our goal was to push the limits of carbohydrate intake, but we know this often results in gastrointestinal complaints which can be devastating during a training block, or even worse, on race day,” Dr King said.

“With the two weeks of ‘gut training’ in place, practising high-carb intake, especially during training sessions, the runners and race walkers were able to tolerate the additional carb loading and in-race fuelling.

“Although gut tolerance has an individual component to it, we found that the athletes were able to triple their in-exercise fuel strategies without additional gut discomfort.”

The ACU team’s previous keto diet studies had shown that exercising with reliance on fat fuels could have potentially negative effects on iron and immune response. However, this time with the support of high muscle carbohydrate stores, markers of immune and iron regulation were stable.


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