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A spoonful of sugar helps performance go up, say researchers

A new study involving 14 club cyclists claims that adding a spoonful of sugar to water could give you more of a boost to performance than forking out money for some sports drinks that only contain glucose.

Researchers established that when the subjects – all male and experienced riders – ingested water containing sucrose, rather than water with glucose, they found cycling easier, reports the Guardian.

While each helped the body maintain glucose levels, it was water with sucrose that led to a better level of performance, according to the study, which will be published in the American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism.

It was conducted by researchers from the University of Bath, Northumbria University, Newcastle University and Maastricht University.

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Sucrose is comprised of one glucose and one fructose molecule, and while many sports drinks contain both, some only have the former.

The study, funded by Sugar Nutrition UK and Suikerstichting Nederland, saw participants randomly given water with either glucose or sucrose stirred into it ahead of a three-hour cycling session.

Each participated in the trial twice, with the type of drink switched for the second ride, and MRI scans used to assess the impact on their performance.

Beforehand, they had fasted for 12 hours and avoided exercise for 24 hours, and had their last meal standardised by researchers to enable individuals' results to be compared.

It was also discovered that sucrose led to subjects experiencing less gut discomfort than glucose.

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Lead researcher Dr Javier Gonzalez commented: “The carbohydrate stores in our liver are vitally important when it comes to endurance exercise as they help us to maintain a stable blood sugar level.

“However, whilst we have a relatively good understanding of the changes in our muscle carbohydrate stores with exercise and nutrition, we know very little about optimising liver carbohydrate stores during and after exercise.

“We found that the exercise felt easier, and the gut comfort of the cyclists was better, when they ingested sucrose compared to glucose.

“This suggests that, when your goal is to maximise carbohydrate availability, sucrose is probably a better source of carbohydrate to ingest than glucose,” he added.

“While the findings are interesting,” notes an analysis of the findings on the NHS Choices website, “this is a small study involving just 14 male endurance cyclists.

“The results can't inform us of the effects in women, less experienced exercisers, or people performing different types of exercise.

“Even for male cyclists, a much larger sample may give different results.

It adds: “This study does inform us about how the body may use sucrose and glucose differently during exercise, but limited firm conclusions can be drawn about the best form of nutrition before, during or after exercise based on its results alone.”

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Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.