Bananas: the new sports drink?

Bananas may be better than a sports drink for endurance exercise, according to a new study – and dietitian Jemma O’Hanlon isn’t surprised.

We know bananas are a traditional energy source and they’re great before a workout, but can they really replace sports drinks? Yes, to according to research, which says that in addition to fuelling athletes and helping them recover after a workout, bananas also provide anti-inflammatory benefits you don’t get with a sports drink.

The study

Published in PLOS One in March, a US study of cyclists on a gruelling 75km ride found that consuming bananas reduced a special type of inflammatory enzyme known as COX-2 when compared to both sports drinks and water. The cyclists ate half a banana every 30 minutes during the course, compared to a similar carbohydrate-containing sports drink or plain water.

The authors concluded that less of this particular enzyme should mean less inflammation. “Consuming bananas with water during exercise has several advantages for athletes and fitness enthusiasts above those linked to regular sports drinks, including a stronger anti-inflammatory effect, better nutrition and improved metabolic recovery,” the researchers said. “Within an exercise context, banana metabolites that increase in the blood following ingestion have a similar effect to aspirin or ibuprofen that inhibits COX-2 activity. This makes bananas close to the perfect athletic food.”

But what about the sugar?

Let’s get real here. Bananas aren’t high in sugar (containing just 20g of carbs per serve) and the natural sugars present are nothing to be worried about. Especially given you’re a Fitness First member and you probably lift, run or are burning kilojoules like there’s no tomorrow.

You see, these sugars might actually aid your performance and this is what the new science may have discovered. As bananas ripen, the sugars change and become more easily absorbed, so they’ll be more likely to assist your recovery. On the flip side, slightly underripe bananas contain higher levels of resistant starch (a type of dietary fibre), which helps reduce the risk of some cancers and is awesome for your gut, as it encourages healthy bacteria to keep your digestive health in good shape.

Bananas also have a low glycaemic index, so those so-called sugars are going to be slowly released and even more so if you team one with some good-quality protein. They provide so many nutritional benefits at all stages of ripeness!

Nutritional powerhouse

These results aren’t surprising because bananas are a nutritional powerhouse. We all know fruit is packed full of nutrients, but there are some particular qualities in bananas that make them very unique.

For example, they’re rich in vitamin B6, providing 15% of your daily intake. Vitamin B6 plays an important role in supporting brain health and helps keep us in a good mood, so it’s a vitamin we don’t want to skimp on. We all know they’re rich in potassium, but did you know that this plays an important role in recovery and supporting the muscles?

Bananas are also rich in dietary fibre (2.4g per banana), which is perfect for keeping us fuller for longer. This means for the small number of kilojoules they contain, they’re going to give you some high-quality carbohydrates and fibre to keep you satisfied post-workout.

When to eat them

So when should you eat bananas? Before, during or after exercise? The answer could be all three. You could grab one as a pre-workout snack around 1 hour before hitting the gym or enjoy it after training with some good-quality carbs and protein; for example, on top of a hearty bowl of porridge (made with milk) or sliced over some peanut butter on toast. If you’re on the run, why not throw one in a healthy smoothie or peel one while sipping on your skinny latte?

The body is most effective at replacing carbs and promoting muscle growth and repair about 1-1.5 hours after exercise, so aim for this if you can. In terms of during exercise, for most people water is all you need, and it’s only if you’re doing a heavy workout for over 90 minutes that you might want to squeeze in a banana to top you up.

If you’re a lover of bananas then never, ever split.