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March 16, 2009

Vespa Sport Supplement Review

This product review took me far longer to write than I ever anticipated; in some ways, I’m still not sure I should be writing it.

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been using Vespa Sport Supplements to augment my mileage buildup towards ultramarathons in the spring and summer. During that time, I’ve gone back and forth about ten times about whether or not to recommend it to other ultrarunners. I’ve finally concluded that I would, but only under certain circumstances – as I’ll explain a bit later.

First, the product. Vespa is an amino acid supplement named after the Asian Mandarin wasp (Vespa mandarina) from which its main ingredient is extracted. Not to be confused with the motor scooter or the Druish Princess of the same name, Vespa’s primary notoriety is that it can optimize the body’s ability to metabolize fat during endurance activities.

Physiologically, the human body stores glycogen in both fat and muscle tissue; during exercise, muscle glycogen is utilized more quickly and effectively (based on oxygen consumption) than fat stores, but becomes depleted more rapidly - the dreaded bonk - than fat does. Therefore, if we could somehow burn a higher percentage of fat while running, we would be able to run for longer periods of time without needing to refuel so frequently – not to mention, it would be a fantastic way to lose weight and get leaner.

The quest to unlock fat metabolism is nothing new; as far back as 20 years ago, running magazines promoted the idea of Long, Steady Distance (LSD) training, which supposedly taught your body to burn fat sources at a lower intensity. Unfortunately, for many runners, this training adaptation had very poor carryover to race performance – all that long, slow training guaranteed was long, slow race times. That’s when folks started experimenting with supplements to facilitate the fat-burning process.

Vespa has been around for more than a decade, and began turning heads when their athletes won high profile races such as the 2000 Olympic Women’s marathon and the 2007 100K World Championships. More recently, they have targeted ultrarunners - and to a lesser extent, triathletes - with an impressive roster of runners who have won overall titles at several ultras. (It also has something of a cult following with NHL teams – which may not be representative of endurance sports, but helps confirm the widely held notion that hockey players will try almost anything for a competitive edge.)

The focus on ultrarunners is primarily due to Peter Defty, Vespa’s United States sales and marketing representative, who is an accomplished ultrarunner (sub-24-hr Western States) himself. Peter and I exchanged several e-mails and spoke on the phone during my trial period with Vespa, and he helped explain a lot of the intricacies of the product and its optimal use.

Ideally, Vespa is used in combination with a comprehensive diet strategy (the Paleo diet – more on that in a minute) and system of training (the Maffetone method) to achieve its intended results. For example, Peter’s recommendation to me prior to a long run was to eat a rare steak the night before, take a Vespa pack 45 minutes prior to exercise in the morning, and start my long run about 1-2 minutes per mile slower than usual. During the run, instead of replenishing my calorie stores, I only took a diluted sports drink, and another Vespa sometime around the 3 hour mark. Gels or similar energy sources should only be used very sparingly, such as 1 or 2 per 50K of running.

Used properly, Vespa helps mobilize fat sources and keeps blood sugar levels constant throughout the activity, which prevents the typical highs and lows that many ultrarunners experience due to fluctuating glucose levels. It also reportedly reduces the amount of lactate that is produced during an exercise session.

(This seems like the right time for me to point out that the actual science behind this is subject to a lot of study right now, and has been a topic of spirited discussion amongst ultrarunners and medical professionals over the past couple of years. Some folks dismiss it as 21st-Century snake oil; others claim that it will revolutionize everything we know about sports physiology. Like everything else, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. For the purposes of this review, I’m going to leave the scientific validity for others to debate, and just report on my own experience. Moving on … )

Looking back at my long training runs over the past three months – some using Vespa, some without - I’m convinced that there is a noticeable difference in my performance on the days I’ve used Vespa. It’s not necessarily a feeling of being supercharged, but I tended to avoid the low energy points that inevitably occur during a multi-hour run. Last year, before I tried Vespa, I would frequently pack sandwiches and Clif bars and Sport Beans and all sorts of things to keep my caloric intake steady during a long run. This year, I haven’t used more than a single gel on any of my long training days. I also feel like I recover from long runs more easily, which is another benefit that the product claims.

Sounds too good to be true, right? Well … right. There are some definite downsides to using Vespa that made me hesitate to recommend it right away. The primary drawback from the everyday runner’s standpoint would probably be cost.

Each 2.7-oz pouch of Vespa sells for $5.99 at Zombie Runner; there is also a junior version (for athletes less than 160 lbs) that sells for $5.49. Either way, that’s a pretty hefty price tag for a product that is supposed to be used both before and during each long run. Apparently the extraction process is fairly laborious – I can’t imagine being the person responsible for milking this stuff out of live wasps – and Vespa distinguishes itself by using only natural ingredients, which are more costly than synthetic imitations. One potential tradeoff for the expense is that you will consume fewer supplemental calories during each long run – so instead of going through 5 dollars worth of gels and bars during a workout, you just use one or two Vespa instead. It’s up to each individual to determine whether that math works in his or her favor.

For me, the primary drawback was the taste, and some stomach issues that developed during my early training phase. There’s really no polite way to say it: Vespa tastes pretty awful. It has a sharply bitter taste that was so persistent that I would immediately brush my teeth after taking the pre-run pouch. Taking it on the trail, you’re kind of stuck with that taste for a lot of miles, even after chasing it down with water or sports drink.

I also noticed some queasiness that occurred pretty consistently after taking Vespa. It was like a very mild level of nausea – not enough to make me sick or slow me down, but just enough to feel weird and uncomfortable. Discussing this with Peter, the solution came back to the dietary strategy that is recommended when using Vespa.

The Paleo diet primarily consists of lean meats, plants, fruit and nuts, with very little calories from what modern-day man considers traditional carbohydrate sources. According to Paleo proponents, my stomach is too accustomed to the carb-rich diet that is typical of most Westerners - particularly runners – and because of that, it doesn’t process the ingredients of Vespa in an efficient enough manner for me to avoid getting some nausea. The solution would be to radically change my diet towards strict adherence to the Paleo guidelines, and eliminate processed starches and other carbohydrate-rich foods. (Like cookies. And pumpkin muffins. And you can see how this is the point where my faith in the product started slipping a bit).

The obvious question from all this seems to be: If I just switched to a Paleo diet, and did a high volume of regimented training, and took in fewer calories – during exercise in particular, and overall in general – and didn’t use Vespa, wouldn’t I still see improvements in weight loss and fitness? It’s a question that I never answered, namely because I’m too set in my ways to turn my diet upside down for several months just to test a hypothesis.

So where does that leave us? I indicated at the top of the post that I would recommend Vespa under certain circumstances – but first, I’ll tell you who probably won’t benefit from this product. If you’re generally happy with how your training and diet are going, and are just looking to tinker with something here or there to augment the things you’re already doing, I doubt that you’d have much to gain by trying Vespa.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking to completely overhaul your fitness program, to simultaneously revamp your training philosophy and monitor your nutritional profile, then Vespa would probably be very effective. Some marathoners and ultrarunners spend years frustrated about lack of progress towards weight loss or performance goals; in those cases, small changes typically aren’t enough to shatter the mold – it takes a dramatic shift to break through stubborn barriers.

So in summary: I don’t know how Vespa works, but I think it does work. I don’t feel like it’s an essential part of my training program, but it could be an essential part of yours. I can’t recommend it to everybody, but I would whole-heartedly recommend it to some people. Considering all that … is it any wonder this review took me so long to write?

See previous product reviews on right sidebar. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.


Dave 3/16/09, 6:29 PM  

Good review....probably never use it. I run because I enjoy to run. I do the best I can with what God gave me and use whatever I can within reason of cost and availabilty. Wow this comment is long for me to say that it may work...but probably not worth my efforts because of what I am trying to achieve.;-)

Anne 3/17/09, 4:53 AM  

I remember hearing about this product years ago and didn't realize it was still around. Thanks for a balanced report. With the way I see people sucking down those gels and Sharkies on even short distances, the cost probably isn't as big an issue. But the taste might be.

jen 3/17/09, 10:22 AM  

Great review. I had never heard of the product but you explained and reviewed it well. I think I am one of those carb-whore taste-fans who is happy with their training, so I'll pass.

Btw, milking a wasp is a great mental picture. And, great Spaceballs reference.

triguyjt 3/17/09, 3:29 PM  

yeah..the milking a wasp brought to mind Ben Stiller and his milking a cat reference in one of his recent movies..
The product sounds amazing and I think, if you can take the taste and the cost...you can see the benefits... good stuff..thanks for the post

Drs. Cynthia and David 3/18/09, 12:56 AM  

I tried Vespa for Firetrails, and was happy to get through the event as well as I did (being slow and all). I certainly don't think it hurt, but haven't systematically tested it like you have.

The Paleo (mostly just low carb to lose weight) approach is one that we use (see also Robb Wolf and Endurancecorner.com ). It probably requires a couple of weeks adjustment period if you're used to eating carbs all day long, but seems to have health benefits in the clinical trials (reduces blood sugar, insulin, triglycerides, etc). But just increasing fat consumption shifts everything toward fat metabolism anyway- not sure if Vespa would show an effect in addition. I'd be curious to hear of any experiences you have if you try Paleo, wiht or without Vespa!


Rainmaker 3/18/09, 5:57 AM  

Very well written and detailed review. While I'm not sure I'll ever use the product (mostly cause I've seen the Bee's Life Movie), I do appreciate all the time it took to write this up. Thanks!

Scott Dunlap 3/21/09, 9:44 PM  

Great write up! And I LOVE the Spaceballs reference.

I've used Vespa for the last year, mostly in races, and it works well for me. I'm not sure exactly how it works, but I get a similar feeling of balanced energy levels (not boosted) and a need for less calorie intake. I had a two-Vespa marathon at the Eugene Marathon, and it was the smoothest race I have ever had (PR by 8 minutes). I've experimented with as many as five in a 100k with good results. Expensive, but for me it's worth it to avoid the low moments.

I haven't had the stomach distress that you mentioned, even though I'm the King of Carbs. I have taken it when fairly dehyrdated and I saw little sparkles all over for about 15 minutes. Then again, nothing goes down well when you're 3% down on your body weight in the heat. ;-)

I have recommended this product to others, and I would say about 1/3 claim it did nothing for them. Most of the rest report a similar sensation to what you and I experience. I guess it all depends on the body type.

Best, SD

Jon 5/4/09, 1:32 PM  

This was a very good review! I figured that heart rate training would be effective with it, but didn't think about the Paleo diet aspect (although I think the Paleo for Athletes diet would be more optimal or possibly a Zone diet since you really do need to have some carbs to aid in recovery.)

Mike Scammon 5/7/09, 3:57 PM  

Ha. Just down a steak before your run and...

I'm hearing Atkins all over this one.
You take away your carbs and your body burns fat. Period. You don't need Vespa. Who milks the wasps anyway?
Not buying it. :)
Great review though!



Hart 6/18/09, 11:21 PM  

best balanced review i've read so far. thanks!

Anonymous,  3/14/12, 4:21 PM  

great read! thanks for sharing your experience and nice job avoiding the bias; not easy!

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