INTERVIEW: It’s no secret we’re long time fans of First Endurance hydration and recovery products. What really got our attention, was the company’s willingness to present actual science in the development of their products, so it’s no real surprise that the arrival of their new Chief Science Officer Dr. Luke Bucci was followed by the launch of their completely reformulated EFS Hydration drink mix – designed to be even more effective, and get this – better tasting – than before.
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One of the most interesting aspects of the new EFS drink formulation is how it improves mental toughness & sharpens your competitive edge – essentially allowing your body and mind to walk a fine line between excitement and calm, in order to work at a higher level physically – or more simply put – EFS helps you battle through the pain more effectively than anything else out there.
I talked with Dr. Bucci about the new drink mix to find more about how and why it does what they claim.
Q: EFS has been around for almost 20 years (we reviewed it way back in 2006), and it’s a popular product. Why change?
Dr. Bucci: First Endurance is a research-driven company, and the thing about research is it’s always changing. There’s a lot of cutting-edge research and technology with amazing unrealized applications for endurance athletes. The science is always improving, so we’re always improving our product mix to give people access to the most-advanced endurance nutrition possible.
Q: What new research compelled you to act?
Two trends of research kinda dovetailed: research on what we’ll call “mental toughness” and research on an alpha amino acid called theanine.
First, mental toughness. Clinical research finds a correlation between improved performance and athletes who exhibit better inhibitory control, which is to say they’re less susceptible to the kind of pessimistic internal signaling we all experience while suffering on the bike or while running. These athletes block out fatigue and focus on external stimuli – the race situation, positioning for the upcoming climb, maintaining target pace or power output – contributing to better results.
This is where theanine connects to endurance athletics. All the evidence points to L-theanine rebalancing that tug-of-war between stimulatory panic mode and inhibitory control, maintaining calm, focus, and perspective when the suffering of endurance training kicks up your brain’s stressors.
In other words, L-theanine supports all of those qualities that predict better performance in clinical research studies, reinforcing the mental toughness needed to push through pain rather than surrender to it. When you and everyone around you are already at your limit, that can be the difference between finishing first, finishing fourth, or—for ultra-endurance events—finishing at all.
Q: You’ve mentioned theanine and L-theanine. What are they and what’s the difference?
Theanine is an alpha amino acid that comes in two variations of chirality or “twists” at the molecular level: an L-form and a D-form. L-theanine works the way we want; D-theanine is basically a blank cartridge that produces a net negative effect by displacing a live round, so we want to avoid it.
Now I’ll complicate this a little further by introducing Suntheanine, which is a specific brand name of L-theanine produced by Taiyo Kagaku Co., Ltd., in Yokkaichi, Japan. First Endurance only uses Suntheanine L-theanine because it ensures more than 99.5% of the theanine molecules are L-theanine. We published a much longer explanation of why Suntheanine is the best option for L-theanine on our site, but suffice it to say here that, if L-form purity is the priority, then Suntheanine is the only choice.
To sum up: theanine is the base compound, L-theanine is the natural chiral (or molecular “twist”) variation of the compound that we want, and Suntheanine is a brand of theanine that guarantees 99.5%+ of the theanine molecules are of the correct L-theanine variety.
Q: Theanine isn’t the only difference between EFS and most other hydration mixes. It’s also always had a lot more calories and electrolytes. Is that overkill?
It’s all about the intensity and duration of exercise and the hostility of the setting. For low intensity and shorter durations, EFS has more than is needed, which you can theoretically call overkill but only if you mix it at the concentration in the directions for use. For lighter training sessions, a lower concentration makes sense.
Having said that, I should also note that we develop endurance nutrition for athletes aspiring to be the best that they can be in the most demanding situations. We’re not following the compressed, one-size-fits-all recommendations from major sports orgs that everybody else follows (Even the top exercise scientists admit may not be not good enough for elite athletes).
First Endurance is the only company that designs nutrition and hydration solutions to meet the admittedly extreme expectations of top athletes based on what they need to support their levels of intensity and duration in training and racing. And we’re not just guessing at what those levels might require. We use real-life feedback from those athletes to tailor our formulas to meet their needs, and we’ve found that once you get into the pointy end of the domestic competitive scene or even the Pro-conti and World Tour level, that’s a pretty high bar.
For elite endurance athletes like the World Tour teams we work with today and have been involved with in the past, EFS’s recommended serving size may even be inadequate. We know a lot of professional athletes mix EFS in higher concentrations than what’s suggested on the label. And that’s keeping in mind that yes, EFS has a lot more calories and electrolytes to start with than your typical hydration mix. From that perspective, EFS isn’t overkill; instead, virtually every other company is falling short of what the world’s elite athletes need to realize their full potential.
So EFS can be diluted to better accommodate low-intensity training, but it doesn’t have the same top-end ceiling that limits other mixes. It can go as big as you need it, even if you’re the best in the world, so we encourage those top-tier athletes to mix at the concentrations they need. Incidentally, feedback from athletes who boost concentration is part of the reason we paid so much attention to the new sweetness profiles.
Q: Flavor is a common issue with hydration mixes, so what did you do to address those sweetness profiles?
The flavor technology in EFS is another significant upgrade. It doesn’t matter how great a hydration mix is if you have to force yourself to drink it, or if – as an editor from a popular cycling publication once complained in private about one of our old flavors – it tastes like “swamp water.” You’re simply not going to drink as much or as often as you should.
As with the performance ingredients in EFS, we relied on recent breakthroughs to tweak the formula’s flavor. This new technology allowed us to give elite endurance athletes an equally elite hydration mix with a flavor profile that eliminates the usual performance-or-flavor tradeoff. The new EFS just tastes good, even when it’s mixed at higher concentrations in order to deliver more carbs and electrolytes on particularly hot, gruelling days.
Even more amazing is that we were able to do it without any artificial flavors, which is something that wouldn’t have been possible without our focus on always taking advantage of new research and technologies to improve our products.
Q: If flavor has been solved, then why isn’t the industry saturated with carb and electrolyte counts as high as EFS?
I can’t speak for other companies, but – flavor aside – GI distress may be the biggest hurdle we had to overcome before boosting carb levels to such lofty heights. We had to source the carbs right to keep the solution osmotically balanced at 7%, which in turn makes GI and metabolic processing as easy on your system as possible. By maintaining that balance, EFS avoids the risk of either bonking or suffering a mid-race gut punch from taking on too much of the wrong kind of fuel and throwing off your GI tract’s tolerance.
Q: What other major changes does EFS make compared to your average hydration mix?
We’ve always pushed the low-osmolality angle for easier absorption and less GI distress, but this new formula solves another issue: it dissolves better into water. The powder itself is noticeably more “feathery” than your typical hydration mix. It’s light, like powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar, so it disappears into water more easily and is less prone to clumping and sludging up at the bottom of the bottle, which is an additional benefit for athletes who mix it at a higher concentration.
We also leave some things out. Vitamin C, protein—there are some omissions that may surprise careful perusers of ingredients lists.
Q: I had noticed a couple of those omissions. Things I expect to see in exercise nutrition and hydration products simply because I always see them – specifically vitamin C, so I’m glad you brought that up. What gives?
To explain the absence of vitamin C- which is, as you note, universal across the hydration mix market – we’ve got to return to the research. Clinical human studies show that Vitamin C can be ergolytic (performance-decreasing), so ingesting it during endurance exercise potentially causes more problems than it solves.
Vitamin C is important to immune support for endurance athletes, but it has to be done right, not just done haphazardly. We had a choice of being like everyone else and adding vitamin C for familiarity – performance-decreasing effects and all – but we ultimately decided that First Endurance’s EFS should be formulated for… endurance first. We do include vitamin C in other products, but since it can have a deleterious impact on endurance performance when taken during exercise, it doesn’t make sense to use it in EFS.
Before moving on, I’ll also shoehorn protein into this answer since I mentioned it earlier. We omitted protein because it’s difficult to absorb, digest and metabolize during exercise when you’re at or above threshold, so it falls under the same endurance-first exclusion policy as vitamin C.
Instead of protein, EFS includes glutamine and branched-chain amino acids. These amino acids are easily absorbed and mimic the amount of a full serving of protein, kickstarting recovery without digestion delay or potential GI tolerance issues.
Q: There’s a lot of “new” going on in the latest iteration of EFS, so is it still friendly for specialized diets like gluten-free or vegan?
Yes and yes. We don’t necessarily make dietary restriction the focus of our formulations – recall the endurance-first policy – but we do of course want to ensure that dedicated athletes with dietary restrictions can take advantage of the research-driven advantages our products provide, regardless of whether their diets are a necessity or a lifestyle choice. Furthermore, our raw materials are all tested for food allergens, and those allergens are listed if present. If you don’t see it under Other Ingredients, then it’s not there.
As serious athletes, we naturally want better nutrition for both our daily lives, but also to improve and sustain our performance year after year. Commercial grade “energy” drinks have distorted what passes for legit products, but thankfully there are brands like First Endurance who have chosen to bypass the mainstream and focus on the pointy end of the market – investing in top grade ingredients, production (all their products are made in the USA), and the right people to create a better grade of nutrition specifically for endurance athletes. Thanks to Dr. Bucci for his time and insights, and I’ll report back to you on just how good the new EFS drinks taste when they land here soon.
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