Are Potatoes the New Fitness Food?
Experts unpeel the latest research on the white potato when it comes to your energy, endurance and, yes, even recovery.
White potatoes have taken a hit ever since people started shunning starchy carbs, and those who didn't began favouring more fibre-dense sweet potatoes. Thanks to new research looking into the benefits of the basic spud for athletes, it might be time to make room for it on your plate.
The Power of the Potato
Potatoes pack a lot of starchy carbs—a large one contains about 65 grams. But when it comes to training, that's not a bad thing: These are fast-digesting carbs, which means they're readily available to use for energy during exercise, says Amadeo Salvador, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
A potato also has a nice dose of the crucial micronutrient potassium, one of the electrolytes involved in muscle contractions. A large one has about 1,570 milligrams, or roughly half your daily recommended intake—far more than you'd get from a banana.
Start Your Session on a Stronger Note
Maybe you down a pre-workout shake, a bar or some PB on toast before training. You may want to consider—in all seriousness—a potato instead. "Potatoes can help increase muscle glycogen stores, which is the primary fuel used by our muscles for both endurance- and strength-based exercise routines", says Salvador.
Eating a potato that's been prepared simply (baked or mashed, maybe with a hint of olive oil and salt) before you get moving can also boost your perception of energy during your workout, adds Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian with the Ochsner Fitness Center in New Orleans. Eat your potato about an hour before your workout to stay full but not feel stuffed, says Kimball. "If it's been several hours since you ate carbs, you might experience a dip in blood sugar, so your workout may feel much harder".
"Potatoes can help increase muscle glycogen stores, which is the primary fuel used by our muscles for both endurance- and strength-based exercise routines".
PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Keep Your Energy Going Long
If endurance sports are your thing, the potato has the potential to power your workouts. In a study led by Salvador, athletes consumed either baked russet potato puree or a carb gel, both totalling 120 grams of carbs (that's almost two large potatoes), every 15 minutes over two hours of cycling. Both were equally effective in supporting exercise performance throughout the duration.
"Gels may be convenient, but they're more processed and less nutrient-dense than potatoes, making the latter a simpler, cleaner source of energy", says Salvador. Gels are also pricier. Not into the puree idea? For hour-plus workouts, try air-frying bite-size pieces (of no more than one potato per hour), throwing them in a food bag and popping a piece every 15 to 20 minutes. If you're training for less than an hour, you probably don't need any extra carbs, says Kimball.
Help Your Body Bounce Back
Any nutrition expert will tell you that if you want your post-workout meal or snack to fuel your recovery, carbs are a non-negotiable. You could have porridge, a protein-and-banana shake—or a potato.
"What you eat after endurance training should address hydration and muscle repair and recovery, as well as electrolyte and glycogen replenishment", says Salvador. Potatoes tick all of the boxes: "They're about 75-percent water, with multiple minerals. And their high carb content can quickly refill glycogen stores".
Within 30 to 60 minutes of your workout, enjoy a large potato, baked or roasted, with 85 grams of protein, like chicken, fish or seitan, says Kimball.
Where the Potato Falls Short
Recent headlines covering other new research have championed the white potato as a good source of protein, especially for female athletes. In some ways, it is, especially for a vegetable.
But with only about 8 grams in a large one, it's not an adequate source compared to other whole foods, such as lean animal proteins or legumes, says Kimball. It's definitely more of a carb source with a decent amount of protein as a bonus, the same way that nut butter is a fat source with a similar protein bonus.
Also, in Salvador's study, athletes experienced a slight increase in digestive distress when they ate potatoes compared to gel or only water. As with any new food, just make sure you experiment with how you prepare and when you eat potatoes to learn what works best for your body, especially if you plan to pack them for race day, says Salvador.
The sweet potato might have the better name and fancier hue. But when eaten the right way, the OG white potato is pretty rad too.