Review: Tailwind as a Race-Day Fuel Source

IMG_2945The electrolyte mix will replace calories and energy without giving the endurance athlete the dreaded sugar crash or bonk.

By Henry Howard

Jennifer Vierling knows the challenges endurance athletes face: the need to replenish lost calories, energy and electrolytes with something that will sustain and hydrate them throughout the event.

Vierling became hooked on cycling when she rode 6 miles from the Charleston airport to the KOA campground to begin a weeklong cycling tour. She put in many miles including RAAM qualifiers and Paris-Brest-Paris, while also supporting her husband, Jeff, as he competed in long-distance cycling events.

They turned their love for endurance sports into a solution for athletes when they created and co-founded Tailwind Nutrition mix and launched their company in 2012. The company actually got started when Jeff ran into nutrition challenges while competing at the Leadville 100 mountain-biking event.

Tailwind: Most folks can drink it all day — and night

They wanted a product that would benefit all athletes with common nutrition/fueling challenges —runners, cyclists, adventure racers, backpackers going for FKTs, skiers, etc.

“Tailwind was developed with a focus on the challenges that endurance athletes face: GI distress, juggling the three components of a fueling strategy (calories, electrolytes, and water); and the sickly sweet taste that is common among sports drinks,” she says. “As a result, we developed a ‘complete fuel’ (calories plus electrolytes plus water) so you don’t need to supplement with anything else, and a formulation that is easy on the stomach. Finally, it’s mild enough that most folks can drink it all day — and night.”

Still, athletes should follow the guidelines, especially once they start.

“Generally speaking, if you are exercising for an hour or less you have enough stored energy in your glycogen stores and enough sodium in the typical American diet to just go with water,” Vierling notes. “At one to two hours, we recommend about 100-200/calories per hour; for more than two hours, we recommend 200-300 calories per 20 ounces of water/hour.”

One serving of Tailwind, mixed with 24 ounces of water, is 100 calories with 25 grams of sugar. Compare that to 24 ounces of Gatorade: 150 calories with 42 grams of sugar, nearly twice as much.

Vierling recommends athletes train with Tailwind to know what works best for the individual.

“You want to maximize your calorie intake without upsetting the stomach to stave off the depletion of your glycogen stores,” she says. “We have customers using anywhere from 180 calories to those who can take in up to 350 calories per hour without any stomach issues. You just want avoid overloading the gut with too many calories as this can cause stomach issues.”

For those who want to supplement with food or a gel, she recommends “they need to dial back the Tailwind for that hour. So, let’s say they take in a banana at some point. For that hour, they’ll eat a banana, but only take in 125 calories of Tailwind along with the 20 ounces of water. Also, if it’s really hot out, the person may need to supplement with additional water.”

Testing out Tailwind on the trail

I tried a sample pack provided by Tailwind during my final few long workouts before and during my first trail marathon in Wisconsin.

When I tested Tailwind, I had earlier used Generation Ucan as my morning fuel source — or, as non-runners call it “breakfast” — before using Tailwind during the run. Whatever your preference, I would definitely recommend trying out the combination of fueling sources during practice runs well before race day.

For me, the recommended mixture was too sweet. I dialed it back using half of the package per 24 ounces of water, and that tasted great and worked really well. I definitely felt a boost during my runs that was different than the sugar-laden energy rushes that sports drinks, gels and the like often provide. The boost felt that it was more sustainable and I don’t recall suffering a crash and burn.

Right now, Tailwind comes in five flavors: lemon, mandarin orange, berry, raspberry buzz (caffeinated) and naked.

I used the naked flavor in the trail marathon because I didn’t want to have any GI issues, depending on what other flavors from the aid stations or gels I would be ingesting to get through the race. I ended up only using one gel because the Tailwind worked so well. In fact, I really noticed how helpful it was to be able to take regular sips of Tailwind from my hand-held bottle, instead of trying to guess how much fluid I would need until the next aid station.

This is something that Tailwind actively promotes. From its website: “Sipping regularly provides a steady stream of energy, electrolytes, and hydration, which helps to keep your energy and electrolyte levels consistent and is easy on the digestive tract. By contrast, downing gels or shots all at once stresses the digestive system and creates a cycle of spikes followed by declining energy and electrolyte levels.”

Tailwind as a concentrated gel

For runners, cyclists and others who want to turn Tailwind into a concentrated gel, there is good news.

Vierling says that quite a few customers do this – particularly for triathlons and road marathons. She recommends viewing this post on their Facebook page and viewing a video that one of their customers put together.

“The key thing to remember is that if you are running Tailwind at a higher concentration, then you need to keep up on your water intake,” Vierling says. “As a data point, each 100 calorie gel requires about 12 ounces of water to digest it. If you don’t keep up the water, you run the risk of dehydration since your GI system will literally suck water from your bloodsteam to digest those calories. This can lead to stomach ills and why so many people run into problems with gels. You can go about 100 calories/1 tablespoon of water which makes one ounce of syrup that will stay in solution.”

While that is the recommendation, she also notes that an athlete’s water intake will vary as well. Most runners end up at 20 ounces of water per hour, but if it’s hot out they may need to increase their hydration intake to 24 ounces of water. “They can either dilute the Tailwind more, or just supplement with additional water at the aid stations,” Vierling, advises.

In addition to the five current flavor options, Tailwind says they are working on some new caffeinated flavors that will be introduced in December.

While the non-caffeinated versions of Tailwind contain no caffeine, the caffeinated varieties contain 35 milligrams of caffeine per 100 calories. “In a 200-calorie bottle you are getting the equivalent of about a cup of coffee,” she notes. “We recommend that you do not exceed 500 milligrams of caffeine within a 24-hour period to avoid side effects such as jitteriness. This gives you six to seven hours worth of caffeinated fuel.”

On the other hand, athletes can drink non-caffeinated Tailwind indefinitely. “On a stage race or multi-day epic, we do recommend taking in protein during your downtime while your stomach is resting to help in recovery.”

The last word

Tailwind is a mix of sucrose and dextrose —a glucose molecule, called d-glucose, which is readily absorbed and utilized as fuel by muscles. It’s the dextrose that gives Tailwind its rapid energy, easy absorption low sweetness. In other words, this combination helps replenish the calorie deficit without slowing digestion or causing GI issues.

Other sports drinks contain longer-chain sugars that take more time and effort from the digestive track to break down into usable energy. This slows the delivery of energy, and for some people can result in slowed or even stopped digestion.

I was generally surprised at how much more I preferred Tailwind to the gels I used in previous marathons. The taste was better — though I would love to see a chocolate variety added — but more importantly the mix made for a smoother, more satisfying event. I look forward to testing Tailwind on an upcoming road race.

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