Skratch Labs celebrated its six-year anniversary in January. Kieran Howells catches up with founder Dr. Allen Lim, who talks remedies, hydration and staying ahead of the curve

The very concept of nutrition has undergone something of a rebrand in recent years. A notion once met with repudiation has now emerged as one of the key areas of innovation within our industry. Naturally, classics are classics for a reason, and no one is going to tell you to give up the Clif Bar anytime soon, but when contemplating a change in nutritional tack, the plethora of options now on offer can be somewhat discombobulating. What really goes into producing quality sports nutrition? It’s an expansive question, and one I can’t touch with a bargepole without consulting an expert. Dr. Allen Lim, founder of Skratch Labs, has been in the cycling nutrition field for many years, and is a go-to expert on all things relating to the health and fitness of a rider in-session.

“When working as a coach and sports scientist on the pro cycling tour, the single-biggest complaint that athletes had was that conventional sports nutrition left a bad taste in their mouths, and an even worse feeling in their guts,” Lim recounts. “The problem is not limited to world-class athletes. 

It has affected almost anyone who has consumed sports nutrition under the guise of performance, be it drinks, bars, chews or gels. In an attempt to remedy this problem, I began making food and drink from scratch, blending a simple sports drink with less sugar, more sodium, and real fruit to keep athletes better hydrated. At the same time, I prepared delicious recipes like savoury rice cakes, parmesan potatoes, and freshly-baked cookie bars to fuel our team.”

From these humble yet prestigious beginnings, Lim noticed the changes in his riders’ performances. “As an exercise physiologist, I saw an opportunity to solve problems with nutrition and hydration for active people while pursuing my passion to understand performance in cycling.” Although the brand had established its identity, and athletes up to Tour de France-level were already relying on Lim’s creations, the scientific and technical attributes had yet to be distilled into a specific marketable product. Following months of research and practical application, Skratch Labs was officially formed in 2012 along with technical specifications for each product.

So let’s delve into the science of nutrition. “Any more than a three per cent weight loss during exercise due to dehydration has dramatic effects to the person’s performance,” Lim explains. “Let’s dive specifically into hydration and why water is not enough. Our thirst mechanism is driven by how salty our blood is. As we lose water, the salt concentration in our blood increases, so we get thirsty. “So, during exercise, if you were to only drink water, you would stop feeling thirsty before you replace all of the water lost. This is because your body is more concerned about maintaining a constant sodium concentration than it is at maintaining a constant amount of water in the body. In fact, your body will actually let itself dehydrate in order to keep the sodium balance in check. Skratch Labs has the right ratio of electrolytes relative to sweat in its hydration product range to avoid this issue.

“Tests carried out during the Tour – where riders were weighed in and out – showed that, when using Skratch, riders left to their own devices drink enough to avoid dehydration and stay within two per cent of their body weight.” How does this apply when it comes to bars and other snacks? “First and foremost, the stomach digests food, which turns it into liquid. The liquid then passes to the small intestine, which is where water and energy are absorbed. Now, if your carbohydrate is in liquid form, it bypasses the stomach really fast.

“In the past, the working sports nutrition theory has been to bypass the stomach with very highly-concentrated carbohydrate drinks immediately filter through into the small intestine. Unfortunately, the flaw with that theory is that in actual fact, the small intestine cannot absorb that carbohydrate fast enough, so it creates create a new bottleneck within itself, which can cause bloating, a bad gut and in some cases, exercise-induced diarrhoea – something which is common in endurance athletes.”

He adds: “As a result of these findings, we recommend to athletes and consumers to get most of their calories by eating such products like the Skratch Labs Energy Chews and Energy Bars.” This is all well and good for athletes looking for increased hydration, but a well-rounded offering also has to consider those looking for calorie replacement during heavy exercise. According to Lim, the secret lies in discovering what works best for the individual. “While the simple answer is to eat solid, real food, the type of food matters and there are, of course, significant individual differences in how different people process and deal with different foods. Despite this general piece of advice, it’s still important to experiment and stick to foods with minimal ingredients that are low in fibre during exercise.” 

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