The findings, published in Journal of Applied Physiology, could mean athletes are soon fuelling up on spuds during important races - as the industry looks to innovate new products and sports people look for new ways to fuel up.
"Potatoes are a promising alternative for athletes because they represent a cost-effective, nutrient-dense and whole-food source of carbohydrates," wrote the researchers, led by Professor Nicholas Burd from the University of Illinois. "Furthermore, they serve as a savoury race fuel option when compared (with) the high sweetness of (carbohydrate) gels."
"Research has shown that ingesting concentrated carbohydrate gels during prolonged exercise promotes carbohydrate availability during exercise and improves exercise performance," commented Burd. "Our study aim was to expand and diversify race-fuelling options for athletes and offset flavour fatigue."
"All in all, our study is a proof-of-concept showing that athletes may use whole-food sources of carbohydrates as an alternative to commercial products to diversify race-fuelling menus," he said.
Spuds for sports
The research was funded by a grant provided by Alliance for Potato Research & Education. The team behind the study recruited 12 participants who were healthy and devoted to their sport, averaging 165 miles (267 kilometers) per week on their bicycles.
All had been training for years. To qualify for the trials, the cyclists had to reach a specific threshold for aerobic fitness and complete a 120-minute cycling challenge followed by a time trial.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions during the experiments: to consume either water alone, a commercially available carbohydrate gel or an equivalent amount of carbohydrates obtained from potatoes.
The team standardised what the 12 cyclists ate for 24 hours before repeating the 120-minute cycling challenge and time trial, which was designed to mirror typical race conditions. Throughout the exercise, the team measured participants' blood glucose, core body temperature, exercise intensity, gastric emptying and gastrointestinal symptoms. The researchers also measured concentrations of lactate, a metabolic marker of intense exercise, in participants' blood.
"We found no differences between the performance of cyclists who got their carbohydrates by ingesting potatoes or gels at recommended amounts of about 60 grams per hour during the experiments," Burd said. "Both groups saw a significant boost in performance that those consuming only water did not achieve."
Plasma glucose concentrations went up by a similar amount in those consuming potatoes and gels. Their heart rates increased by a similar amount over the water-only cyclists, and they were speedier on the time trial.
However, the team revealed that those consuming potatoes experienced significantly more gastrointestinal bloating, pain and flatulence than the other groups.
Bard suggested that this may be a result of the larger volume of potatoes needed to match the glucose provided by the gels.
"Nevertheless, average GI symptoms were lower than previous studies, indicating that both (carbohydrate) conditions were well-tolerated by the majority of the study's cyclists," the team said.
Source: Journal of Applied Physiology
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00567.2019
“Potato ingestion is as effective as carbohydrate gels to support prolonged cycling performance”
Authors: Amadeo F. Salvador, et al