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First Endurance Ultragen and Electrolyte Fuel System (EFS)

First Endurance is a name that’s coming up more and more in cycling nutrition discussions. It helps that they’re starting to advertise and sponsor teams. But we’ve been aware of them for some time, as should any eagle-eyed customer.

First Endurance bottlesWhen we started working on this review, we left the Ultragen and Electrolyte Fuel System (EFS) out on our kitchen counter. We came home that night to mix bottles for our morning ride. While we were mixing, we were hit with an insatiable thirst. Rather than reaching for water or juice, we went for the freshly mixed bottle of Lemon-Lime EFS. The first sniff from the tub had revealed a smell we couldn’t place. A concern quickly flashed that it would taste like Cytomax, one of our least favorite drinks. And then we mixed the powder with water. Closer to lemonade. And then we drank, just a sip, before taking it out on the ride. Drained the whole bottle in one squeeze. Kind of like a less-sweet, slightly more viscous Gatorade. Tasty.

The taste was good on warm and cold rides, and during racing as well. Agreed with the stomach. We find that sweet drinks encourage drinking, something we rarely do enough of while riding. This was sweet without being too sweet, which we usually associate with a sticky aftertaste that we can’t wash out. Maybe this sensation is because First Endurance claims they made the flavor more tart for easier drinking.

First Endurance bottlesThe benefit to liking EFS is that a standard 18-ounce bottle yields 146 calories. Since we rarely drink or eat enough on the bike, these numbers are very much to our liking. Standard-issue Gatorade is about 120. Likewise, it has more carbohydrate, 36g to 35g, lots more sodium, lots more chloride, and loads more potassium. The latter three are the famed electrolytes everyone talks about. We consider these good things without reservation. And this isn’t to beat on Gatorade; it’s just that with their ubiquity, Gatorade is a standard. The high level of electrolytes are supposed to prevent cramping by keeping those essential minerals from getting totally depleted during a ride. Ever notice salt stains develop on shorts and jerseys during hot rides? That salt was inside the body and needs to be replaced.

Not that determining what these drinks have in them is easy. No drink maker seems willing to call a serving “one 18oz bottle,” so we’re stuck multiplying different numbers. Gatorade calls a serving 8oz. First Endurance calls a serving 12oz, PowerBar 8oz, and Accelerade/Endurox 12oz. And mixing is never a treat. Somehow, a standard bottle of on-ride drink just about always takes 1.5 scoops, as it is with EFS. It’s a mystery why they can’t make a scoop so that a standard bottle is one or two scoops.

First Endurance went heavy on electrolytes so that athletes wouldn’t be tempted to take extra electrolytes, like those capsules some ride with, on hot days. They also added a Vitamin C, 180mg in a bottle, to help immunity and fight free radicals. We’ve seen C in on-ride drinks before, but never this much. Likewise, EFS seems to have relatively high levels of calcium and magnesium.

But what First Endurance is making its name on is including amino acids in the drink. In a single 18-ounce bottle is a 3000mg amino acid blend of l-glutamine, leucine, iso-leucine, and valine. This is what FE’s lit says about this aspect of the EFS drink: “The latest research reveals that it’s these specific free-form amino acids that are inherent in protein, not the complete protein itself, that improves glycogen resynthesis and delays central (mental) fatigue. The benefits of using free-form amino acids are that because they’re small molecules they are much easier to digest and absorb while exercising, they don’t cause bloating and they don’t cause gas.” Anything that delays the onset of fatigue is good with us, and if we can drink a bottle without cramping and without feeling bloated, that’s more liquid for our body to utilize to keep running at overload. If you don’t think you’re tired, then you’re not tired.

There’s a lot going on inside this EFS bottle. We’re in no position to evaluate the claims regarding whether or not the Vitamin C or Amino Acids actually work. This research is pretty new to us. Electrolytes being beneficial appear to be universally accepted, and just about every sports drink has them. In terms of performance, the added ingredients in EFS were certainly not a hindrance. We can’t say whether or not they helped, but we’d like to believe they did. Despite all the ingredient talk, something as individual as taste seems to be the most important factor in choosing a drink. If you like the taste, you’ll drink more. And since it’s hard to drink enough, taste can well be the difference between the body going at full-tilt and the body slowing down.

As with EFS, Ultragen impressed us right off with its calorie count. 320 calories in 12oz is higher than the other bike-specific recovery drinks we’re familiar with. Endurox is 250 calories per serving and PowerBar Recovery is 90 per, though PB’s should be mixed at two servings per 16oz bottle. And if you wanted to fill an 18oz bottle, you could get 480 calories in. But FE doesn’t think that the calorie count is particularly notable. They believe that their mix is easy for the body to absorb, and as such, is beneficial for recovery. A trip through their literature shows they believe Ultragen is easy enough on the stomach that it can be drunk during the last hour of a long workout or race and it won’t slow the athlete down. They claim that at the recent Tour of California, the Gerolsteiner riders were taking Ultragen feeds in the last hour of the stages.

Taking it at the end of a ride or race wasn’t practical for us, as there’s no team car or even soigneur on our rides, so we stuck to drinking it upon finishing our rides, or immediately post-race and pre-ride. And leaving Ultragen pre-mixed in a parked car is a bad idea; drinks with protein don’t do well warm. Keep the powder separate until the last minute. The flavor we tested out was Orange Creamsicle, which was fine cold. We were hoping it tasted like an Orange Whip. It didn’t, but that doesn’t make it any less appealing; we just won’t drink it as an accompaniment to hot dogs.

Ultragen is a busier drink than EFS. In addition to 60g of carbohydrate per serving, there’s 20g of whey protein (btw, FE claims that lactose-intolerant people won’t have a problem with this drink), branched chain amino acids (bcaa’s), and glutamine. FE has extensive documentation as to why all this works to your benefit. We won’t repeat the claims. However, the drink did go down easy, and didn’t seem to be a problem to have it and then go ride immediately afterwards. It wasn’t as sweet as some drinks, and in a depleted state, sweet is always a draw, but overall the effect was a good one.

We can have anything prepared in the fridge at home. But during our heaviest training week of the year, we used Ultragen instead of our usual post-ride smoothies or sandwiches and felt snappy. The better test came up on the weekend; back to back hard days. We were looking for a mid-afternoon snack Saturday, after the 75-mile group ride and the light lunch. Rather than go for the bag of pretzels or the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat, we mixed up a 12oz bottle of Ultragen and chugged it. Went down as easy as milk and didn’t leave us sleepy afterward. The following day, we mixed up a bottle and threw it in the backpack for drinking after the race (when it’s 40-degrees outside, we didn’t think refrigeration would be an issue). 15 miles to the race, a 50-mile race, and a cool-down lap, and we were more than ready for some calories. We drained the bottle, put on the winter jacket, and rode home. No feeling of a bloated stomach and the legs felt less stiff than they usually do when cold and stuffed with lactic acid. And the legs weren’t brutalized in the afternoon. Don’t know if it was related, but woke up before the alarm the next morning.

We expect to see FE stuff around more and more. It should develop a following, and not just because the Discovery, Gerolsteiner, and Priority Health teams are using it. Those teams will probably convince people to taste it, but long rides need calories during and calories after, and FE is a great way to get them.