Updated: Aug 22, 2020
Coach Hayden Cox
Emma Allison, one of Railroad’s founding athletes asked me that question the other day.
Despite being in the sport for years, somehow I’ve never once looked into these nutrition/hydration supplements. After a few hours of research, however, here is my response.
Before I get into it, please note that, while I might consider myself a smart guy, I’m not a dietician. I don’t have a degree in health sciences, and I’m certainly not a doctor. Any information presented here is a layman’s opinion only.
While I don’t have any medical expertise, I do have years of experience as a coach & athlete, a formal education that included interpreting empirical articles, a critical eye, and many years of reading and listening to experts in a wide variety of fields.
2. “Real Food”
I’m immediately skeptical of any “food” that is made in a factory or synthesized or processed. If I can’t see what I’m consuming, I generally avoid it. Our ancestors got us here by eating “real food” (For more on that, read Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”) and there’s a reason cultures evolved eating similar items for thousands of years (for more on that, read Nassim Taleb’s “Antifragile”).
For these reasons, I generally try to steer my athletes towards foods they can identify.
Spinach, cucumbers, carrots, strawberries, almonds, beans, salmon, beef: All these foods you can generally look at and identify in a split second. Even better, you can find out where they came from (usually just one place, unlike something processed). If you’re doing it right (in my opinion, eating foods that are grown locally) you can even go visit the farm/ranch where the food came from and shake the hand of the farmer or rancher that put your food on your table.
Coming out of a tube in tablets, Nuun (and Maurten or Skratch or Gu or anything like that) is clearly NOT “real food.”
3. The Importance of Hydration
Nuun also makes the bold claim on their website that “water does not hydrate you.” This only adds to my skepticism. I’m not sure how they’re defining “hydrate” here so I won’t disagree with them outright, but here’s what I do know:
Our ancestors certainly weren’t drinking Nuun a thousand years ago and they survived well enough to get us where we are today.
There’s certainly something to be said for science and advancement, and I won’t disagree with the importance of hydration, electrolytes, etc., but if you’re starting your reasoning for why someone needs Nuun by diminishing a substance (water) that has, quite literally, been the foundation of our survival, I’m concerned.
4. The Positives of Nuun
That all being said, it is impossible to deny that a lot of athletes are using Nuun. They’ve used it for years and they keep coming back to it. Considering it costs more than water and is at least a mild inconvenience to procure and use, these athletes are certainly finding a benefit in it.
Athletes feel it keeps them hydrated, makes them feel better, and allows them to recover faster before their next workout.
That all makes sense to me. After a good workout, your body is going to be more depleted than it was when it started. It’s crucial for athletes to replace the hydration and nutrients they have lost. That’s a huge focus of my training here at Railroad and recovering/preparing for your next workout should always be emphasized.
Nuun is clearly an effective way of doing that. By consuming it during a run—especially a longer session or one in abnormally hot/humid conditions—or consuming it immediately after, you’re going to be putting fluids and electrolytes back into your body that you need to recover. Furthermore, in a longer run like a marathon, keeping your fluid/electrolyte intake high is absolutely pivotal in delaying or preventing the dreaded “bonk.” Nuun can certainly do that.
It also makes sense that, by way of having carbohydrates & electrolytes, Nuun is likely more effective than plain old water to replace your lost fluids and nutrients.
However, with the lack of long-term empirical studies, it’s impossible to be sure either just how effective Nuun is (at either improving performance or recovery) or what effect it may have on your body after repeated use.
*Note: If you are able to find any empirical studies I missed, please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
5. Ok, so should I use Nuun?
With that background, I’ll finally answer Emma, who happens to be a law student at Duke, with the classic law school answer.
For your average everyday easy run, you probably don’t need Nuun. Hydration/nutrition is always important, but it is significantly less so for runs under an hour. Typically, most athletes don’t even have to think about it until after the 90 minute mark.
Historically, I have encouraged all my athletes to do the following:
Pre-run: Eat healthy foods and drink lots of water throughout the day. Bring at least one full water bottle (preferably a reusable one >20 oz) and a healthy snack (i.e. fruit, peanut butter bagel, etc.) to your run.
During a run: No need to bring water/fuel, though feel free to make a quick stop at a water fountain if you think you need it.
Post-run: Finish that bottle of water and eat your healthy snack within 15min of finishing. Keep drinking water throughout the day and get a healthy, filling meal within 2-3 hours of finishing your run.
In light of my new research, that recommendation will stay exactly the same.
However, I will note that hardly any of my athletes are ever running over 90 minutes and when they do, it is not by much. When they start pushing towards the 2 hour mark, I have suggested they begin experimenting with mid-run fuel—something like Nuun—especially if they’re training for a marathon or other race that will have them moving for over 2 hours.
So, Emma, if you feel like Nuun is helpful to you, feel free to experiment with it on your runs that last over 90 minutes.
But, I wouldn’t use it every day, and I would pay close attention to how your body reacts to it.
I’d also encourage you to try out Maurten—which is quite similar and I therefore have the same hesitations I had with Nuun—which is being widely used by the best athletes in our sport. It has been utilized during a host of incredible achievements including Eliud Kipchoges’s Marathon World Record in Berlin. It is, alas, more expensive. Moreover, there is not a huge body of research on Maurten either and I would, therefore, treat it with caution.