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Is Maple Syrup the New Racing Fuel?

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We’re entirely certain it improves upon pancakes, but could maple syrup also take your run to the next level? Sounds crazy, but it may actually be one of the best race fuels thanks to its ideal nutrient profile.

“During exercise, our muscles use all of our stored glucose to fuel the activity. When it’s time to replenish those stores, the body prefers quick, easily-absorbable energy that provides glucose right away so we can keep on exercising,” explains Alexandra Caspero, R.D., owner of weight management and sports nutrition service Delish Knowledge. And an intense workout is probably the only time where 100 percent sugar is preferred over foods with fiber and fat, she adds.

Now, we're not talking about mainlining Aunt Jemima here. But pure maple syrup falls perfectly into this category of instant gratification, since the sugars start to break down and deliver glucose the moment it enters your bloodstream. But, because the sticky stuff also has a lower glycemic index than other sugars, it continues to break down over a longer stretch of time to keep you fueled longer. And its lack of anything other than sweetness actually works to your benefit, since fiber and fat can slow down absorption and give you GI distress mid-run. (What to eat before the race, though, is entirely different. See Ask the Diet Doctor: Pre-Race Eating Plan.)

But what makes it better than other GUs and gels? It actually has more nutrition than traditional kinds. “Maple syrup contains manganese, zinc, potassium, and antioxidants, so while you are refueling your body with needed sugar, you are also helping to replenish vitamins and minerals,” Caspero explains.

If syrup is such a great source of in-race nourishment, why don't you see more pouches with the sweet stuff at your local running store? Runners and cyclists have known about this goldmine for years, but it's remained a relatively untapped market (evidenced by the lack of scientific studies on the fuel). (These 12 Tasty Alternatives to Energy Gels have been fueling athletes pretty well in the meantime.)

The Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, for example, supplies recipes for sports drinks, energy gels, bars, and other snacks they claim are the perfect fuel for various stages of the workout—all thanks to the sticky ingredient. The problem is, some of these recipes look problematic due to the fiber content, says noted sports nutritionist Barbara Lewin, R.D., founder of sports-nutritionist.com, who works with elite and Olympic athletes.

What endurance athletes need is the ability to slurp down pure syrup on the go—and luckily, this is an ask that Vermont-based tapping company, Slopeside Syrup, is trying to deliver on. The syrup company, founded by a multi-generation Olympic ski family, partnered with Tour de France cyclist and syrup-enthusiast Ted King to package their sweetness in something more convenient than the glass jug you see on supermarket shelves. Together, they created UnTapped, quick-open gel packets filled with 100 percent pure Vermont maple syrup. Almost a year after their initial crowd-funding campaign, the pouches are available at some outdoor stores and starting to trickle into large retailers (L.L. Bean will start carrying UnTapped this spring).

And while runners and cyclists may be rejoicing, they shouldn't rely entirely on the brown stuff: Maple syrup lacks the electrolytes needed to replenish the body after endurance sports, Lewin explains. (Find out the best way to Restore Electrolytes.) 

If your local shops don't carry it, you can buy UnTapped online for just $2 a pouch. You can also make your own sweet supplier by buying empty gel packs and filling them with your favorite 100 percent pure maple syrup, Caspero suggests.

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