Getting faster, stronger and better depends on what you eat and drink. But it's easy to get stranded in the sea of processed foods, drinks and supplements geared toward sports performance.

Getting faster, stronger and better depends on what you eat and drink. But it's easy to get stranded in the sea of processed foods, drinks and supplements geared toward sports performance.

The large number of "power products" can leave any athlete or exercise enthusiast wondering what kind of powders, bars, gels and high-octane sports drinks to buy - and how to use them.

If you plan to compete in endurance events or are simply working out to improve your physical fitness, remember two simple things:

- You need carbohydrates if you're going to be exercising for a long time.

- Many simple foods provide the fuel you need to keep going.

Kenyan runners, for example, are considered the best endurance athletes in the world. Dr. Owen Anderson, physiologist and sports nutrition expert, says almost half of all male athletes in the world who have run 10 kilometers in less than 27 minutes are Kenyans - specifically, from the Kalenjin tribe.

And they do it without supplements, vitamins or specialized products.

Besides an established running culture and training at high altitudes, Kalenjin athletes eat a simple diet that provides energy-building and bone-building basics: bread, boiled rice, poached potatoes, cabbage, kidney beans, boiled porridge and ugali (a cooked cornmeal paste).

Carbohydrates contribute about three-quarters of their daily calories. According to Anderson's studies, Kenyan runners take in 600 grams of carbohydrates over a 24-hour span during training, giving leg muscles an ample supply of glycogen for energy. They also eat carbohydrates within one hour after workouts. Kenyan runners eat more carbohydrates than any other endurance athletes in the world.

Kenyan runners also adhere to a philosophy that regular foods alone will give them the strength to compete, Anderson says.

"There (are) no vitamins, no minerals, no special formulations or miracle compounds - nada," he said.

Why carbs are good

Low-carbohydrate diets were very popular in the middle of the last decade. But some diets can be harmful when it comes to powering up for exercise.

Low- carb or carb-free diets prevent the body from converting glycogen to glucose as it is needed for muscle activity. Our bodies can store enough glycogen for about two hours of mid-range physical activity, so eating carbohydrates throughout the day can keep glycogen stores intact - especially when exercise is involved.

On the plate

Despite the abundance of nutritional supplements, the medical community emphasizes basic, whole foods as fuel for sports.

Dr. Brett Western of the department of orthopedics at Springfield Clinic in Springfield, Ill., completed a fellowship in sports medicine. He says people participating in endurance events "basically need higher calorie intake, higher carbs and higher protein to build muscle endurance to avoid injury and fatigue."

Western says basic foods can be just as effective as products marketed for sports.

"Bagels, orange slices and trail mix have complex carbs and are easily digestible," he says.

Anderson suggests using real food instead of sports bars and nutritional supplements. A brown-rice cake with peanut butter will give you the carbohydrates, protein and calories you need for an energy boost, he says.

The right combination of food and drink depends on the individual.

"Follow the standard food pyramid guidelines - they're tried and true. (You) don't necessarily have to load up on food supplements and vitamins ... You really don't need to spend the extra money."

Avoid this

- Super high-fiber foods before exercise - they can cause stomach upset.

- New foods or drinks before a competition. Test foods during training.

- Excess caffeine, fizzy drinks, processed foods, fried foods, and high-sodium foods.

- Working out on an empty stomach. Exercise without fuel leads to poor performance and will cause your body to hold onto fat. Have a snack one to two hours before a workout or competition.

- Overeating. You don't need extra food for moderate exercise, such as a 40-minute walk, 30-minute run, or 60-minute bike ride.

Do this

- Eat a balanced diet daily with foods that contain a combination of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Make most of your bread, cereal, and pasta from whole-grains. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and calcium, and stick to lean protein.

- Match your energy intake to your energy needs. Eat smaller meals more frequently to avoid energy fluctuations.

- Stay hydrated, but don't overdo it. Too much liquid before an intense workout can cause nausea. Aim for six to 10 ounces of water in the hour before your workout.

- For activities 90 minutes or longer, replenish your stores with an electrolyte-replacement drink (sport drink) and a fast-absorbing carbohydrate-rich snack (look for something with a high glycemic index, like energy gel, bread, fruit juice, or an energy bar).

- Once you reach the 90-minute mark, drink 8 to 10 ounces of sport drink every 15 to 30 minutes.

- For intense activities lasting 90 minutes or longer, eat carbohydrates and protein within 45-60 minutes after you end the workout to replenish glycogen stores and reduce the amount of fat your body stores. Try a peanut butter sandwich, a bagel with cream cheese, fruit and yogurt, or tree nuts.

Homemade sports drink recipes

Recipes come from

Basic sports drink

1 quart (32 ounces) or 1 liter water
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon table salt
Flavoring to taste - orange juice, lemon juice, unsweetened drink mix, etc.

Mix together. Refrigerate until use.

Basic sports drink for a 20-ounce bottle

Fill 20-ounce sports bottle with water and mix:

3 tablespoons table sugar
1/8 teaspoon table salt
Flavoring to taste - orange juice, lemon juice, unsweetened drink mix, etc.

Refrigerate until use.

State Journal-Register