The number of people I’ve climbed with who’ve seen me hitting the wall is quite long. I’m not referring to temper tantrums or belayer induced impacts after a fall, but the physiological phenomenon of when the fuel runs out. One time I felt I was moving really well, nice and fast all the way to the CIC hut on the approach to Ben Nevis’ north face. Then a few hundred meters up Observatory gully and my legs turned to jelly and I could only manage a step or two between rests. Some energy gels and water and I slowly got moving again. The physiology of why this happens is centred on the limited carbohydrate supply the body carries. You can support up to half an hour’s intense exercise using your glycogen supplies before you run out (about 2000kcal worth). Your metabolism then needs to switch to a fatty acid based system which can then keep you going for hours. This process of switching is what happens when you hit the wall. “Bonking” is another name for it. You can prevent it in 2 ways: either keep topping up your carbohydrate supply or train your body you use the fatty acid system in the first place. This is your aerobic system and by raising your aerobic threshold you will save your glycogen for when it counts. In both cases you will run out of carbohydrate eventually if you’re working at moderate intensity continuously. In the past my preferred method was to use isostar in a hydration system to keep drip feeding carbohydrate into my body, which worked quite well. In the last year I’ve upped my aerobic threshold which also works. But what if there was a way to keep the energy pathways working better so you could keep up that level of intensity for longer without hitting the wall?
Enter Phytosport. There are three products in the range: an electrolyte mix called Complete Hydration, an energy drink called Prepare and Endure and an after workout supplement containing branched chain amino acids called After Workout. This article centres on the Prepare and Endure. I mixed up a scoop of it with half a litre of water and a sachet of the electrolytes and and drank it in one go. The taste is good and it settles easily on the stomach. I then put on my trainers and did a little test: 10km run along a river gorge near my house. Oh, and I hadn’t eaten anything before the run since the night before. This was a surefire way of setting myself up to hit the wall at around 8km if not before (I’ve done this many times). The run ends with a hill climb back out of the gorge to my house and without eating beforehand this climb is evil. I wanted to see if the Phytosport would sustain me.
Did it? In a word, yes. I managed the run with very little fatigue and even the final climb was completed at a steady pace. There was no surge of energy, no burst of speed. What I did feel was a sense that I would simply keep going and going. Uphills felt tiring but once on the flat my legs recovered quickly. The final climb was ok enough for a sprint finish to my house. Ok, so maybe I wasn’t pushing hard? When I checked my time I found I’d run a personal best. Previously when in optimum conditions and well fed I’d done this route in 1hour and 8minutes. When running on an empty stomach, I’ve scarcely got within 10 minutes of this and have often been unable to run up the last hill. My stopwatch said 1hr 4 minutes. And I haven’t run for more than 20 minutes in several months. I was impressed.
But here is where it gets interesting. Unlike your average sugar laden drink, Phytosport Prepare and Endure only has 50kcal per serving and 6g of sugar. What it does contain is a mix of vitamins and amino acids that play a major role in the cellular energy pathway. These include ribose,citrulline, arginine and carnitine. Carnitine is involved in the uptake of fatty acids by cells as well as the process that processes lactic acid (and turns it into a fuel). Ribose is a key component in the pathway that makes ATP, the molecule which all energy pathways ultimately leed to. Arginine and citrulline are involved in producing nitric oxide, a potent dilator of blood vessels which helps improve blood flow to the muscles. And hence oxygen supply.
I’m not a biochemist so I am still researching this but my hypothesis is that the Prepare and Endure is designed to support aerobic energy production and to raise your aerobic capacity. It primarily facilitates the use of your own energy stores (mainly fatty acids) but the sugars that are there may help keep the anaerobic, glycogen based system topped up for when you need to work harder. The blurb on the pack says it “delays the crash” and improves endurance. I would agree. I have also had a test at the climbing wall during an endurance event and found I was a lot less pumped while taking the Phytosport than when I wasn’t: I was able to run laps without a pump setting in but the same route got very lumpy later when I ran out of Phytosport and switched back to water. Was this the effect of improved nitric oxide levels, and hence better blood flow? More testing needed on some steep climbs.
This product has not been officially launched in the UK yet but will launch in the autumn. However, I have acquired a limited supply from the U.S. For testing (my wife works for Arbonne) and if you want to try some then get in touch with her here. As ever with Arbonne, these products are vegan friendly and GMO and gluten free.
I will be doing more testing on this as time goes by, as well as a write up on the After Workout product as well. The ultimate test may have to wait until the winter, when a rematch with Ben Nevis’ winter climbs beckons……