RDRC Interview with Jeff Vierling of Tailwind Nutrition
The Tailwind Nutrition origin story begins in a rubbish bin, in which company co-founder Jeff Vierling had his head after finishing the famous Leadville Trail 100 MTB mountain bike race. Jeff's muesli came up, and he thought, "There's gotta be a better way." After extensive research, he realized that most sports nutrition products contain ingredients that are hard to digest, and began experimenting with batches of powder formulated to match the way the body absorbs fuel. Lots of experimentation on himself, his wife and co-founder Jenny, and their local Thursday Bike n’ Beer group in Durango eventually produced a product that people really liked (and that got them through their long efforts without upchucking!) and Tailwind Nutrition was born.
RDRC: On the Tailwind website, there's a video of you throwing up into a rubbish bin after finishing the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race. Can you explain why this is such an important part of the Tailwind story?
JEFF: That was supposed to capture the joy of finishing my first big race, and instead it became the inspiration for Tailwind. I had trained for months for the race, and my legs felt good, but my stomach was terrible all day. It was frustrating. After that experience, I wanted to understand why I felt so bad and how I could avoid it next time, which was the first step toward developing my own mix that later became Tailwind Endurance Fuel. We have the video on the website because it’s something many athletes can relate to, and I think it’s helpful to share the struggles as well as the high points we experience as athletes.
The Tailwind team tests a forthcoming anti-gravity product.
RDRC: You founded this company with your wife Jenny, but neither of you has a background in sports nutrition, right? How did you develop your first product (and what was the first Tailwind flavor), and how did you have the confidence to create and launch a commercial (and FDA-approved) sports nutrition product that is one of the market leaders?
JEFF: Right, Jenny’s and my background was in software and tech. I didn’t set out to make my own product, let alone start a business. I had tried almost everything on the market without finding something that worked for me. I began reading every study I could get my hands on about how the body fuels, hoping to make more informed choices. But as I learned more, I realized the products I was using contained ingredients that are challenging to digest, which didn’t make any sense to me given the calorie demands and blood flow moving away from the digestive tract during exercise. I started experimenting with a fuel mix that matches how the body absorbs energy to minimize stress on the digestive tract. Other aspects came from my experience racing – I wanted something simple to use and keep track of, and a light and clean taste, something I could drink all day. I like Mandarin Orange, so that was the first flavor, and it’s still our best-selling Endurance Fuel flavor today. Back then, I was only making it for myself and sharing it with a few friends and Leadville riders. I had no idea what it would become!
RDRC: For our many readers who are not sports nutrition experts, can you briefly explain what a "gut bomb" is, and why some athletes have more trouble ingesting calories on the run (or bike, or whatever) than others?
JEFF: Well, if you’ve had a gut bomb, you know it! It’s the feeling of having a full stomach, like you just ate a big meal and can’t digest it. It’s a terrible feeling when you’re trying to climb a mountain! We all know people who can down a pepperoni pizza and head right out on the trail, but I’m not one of them. During exercise, blood flow goes to your muscles of course, but also to capillaries in the skin to regulate temperature. That leaves less blood available for the digestive tract, and for most people that means they can’t digest food as easily as they can at rest. It varies person to person, but generally, digestive efficiency goes down as exercise intensity and duration go up.
RDRC: And how does Tailwind address the "gut bomb" issue?
JEFF: Tailwind takes advantage of the active transport mechanisms in the small intestine that operate like pumps to move energy in the form of glucose and fructose (simple sugars) across the intestinal wall into the bloodstream. The transport mechanisms require sodium as well, and as the sodium and sugar molecules are pumped into the bloodstream, the sodium attracts water through pores in the intestinal wall. It’s an elegant and efficient system to meet the essential needs for sustaining exercise – glucose and fructose for energy, sodium, and water. Tailwind’s approach is to provide these ingredients in a simple form that doesn’t have to be digested first, so it can be absorbed quickly without stressing the digestive tract.
At the Tailwind factory in Durango, Colorado.
RDRC: How do you decide the flavors? What was the evolution, and can we expect a continued expansion of flavor choices? Do you take customer requests?
JEFF: Mandarin Orange is my favorite and was the first flavor for that reason. But we quickly learned that taste is highly personal, and different people like different flavors. We use a flavor quadrant concept with citrus, bright berry, dark berry, and brown (think tea or cola) quadrants. Within each, there are many choices, but we try to pick ones that are popular and taste good at a range of concentrations. Not all do – watermelon for example tastes great at one concentration but tastes watery in lighter mixes or like a Jolly Rancher [an American brand of sweet hard candy] in heavier mixes. We love to hear customer requests, and we hope to make more seasonal and special edition flavors available.
RDRC: When did you decide to create Tailwind Rebuild, and how is that designed to help athletes?
JEFF: After launching Endurance Fuel and filling out the flavors, we started hearing from customers about recovery. Endurance Fuel does a great job rebuilding glycogen stores after exercise (and staving off depletion during exercise), and that’s an important pillar of recovery, but not the only one. There are many recovery products on the market, and we wanted to see if we could improve upon what was being offered. We started with what our bodies need to recover and designed Rebuild from there. The key components are the right amount of carbohydrates to restore energy during the short window after exercise when glycogen can be replenished quickly, complete protein for muscle repair in an easily digestible form, and electrolytes to rehydrate. Together, the effect is to help you feel better right away as your energy stores are replenished, and to be stronger and ready quickly for your next adventure.
RDRC: How soon after I finish my workout do I need to consume Rebuild?
JEFF: Ideally within the first 30-45 minutes. It’s designed to mix with water, so you can use it without access to a mixer or refrigerator. The counter-regulatory hormones for insulin are suppressed during exercise and immediately after, allowing insulin to drive energy into your cells at a higher rate. After the window closes, you can still replenish energy, but at a slower rate. Muscle repair cannot take place until energy stores are sufficient, so this is an important first step toward recovery.
RDRC: A question we get sometimes is whether or not long-distance athletes should consume Rebuild during long (e.g. 24-hours or more) events. What's the science on that?
JEFF: Rebuild contains a substantial amount of carbohydrates and electrolytes like Endurance Fuel, so it’s fine as a source of energy and hydration during exercise. The evidence for consuming protein during a long event is less clear, and it may in fact be burned as fuel rather than going to muscle repair. That said, the protein in Rebuild is in a highly digestible form (rice protein and amino acids), which anecdotally seems to be quite tolerable. If the event has breaks such as to catch a brief nap, Rebuild can help prepare for the next stage. It can also be a nice change of pace in a longer event. It’s not designed to improve performance over Endurance Fuel, but it’s fine to use in a longer event if you’d like.
Recognize the signature?
RDRC: Tailwind doesn't make energy gels. Why not?
JEFF: We don’t make gels because it’s easy to develop stomach problems using gels. Most gels require 10-12oz (295-354ml) of water to pass through the stomach and be absorbed. If you don’t drink enough water with gels, the stomach will draw water from the blood stream, which can lead to dehydration. We feel it’s best to keep fueling simple by mixing fuel with water in the proper ratios to ensure you have consistent absorption.
RDRC: The Tailwind slogan is "All you need, all day." Does that mean athletes don't need to complement their Tailwind intake with energy gels? Or with anything else? Or do you recommend athletes combine their nutrition products?
JEFF: Endurance Fuel is designed to provide all you need for training and races, and many customers use it that way. Other customers use Tailwind in combination with other products, and we support that too. We want customers to use what works for them. What we suggest is to keep calories per hour steady, dialing back Tailwind or just drinking water when eating something else.
Maggie Guterl can run farther than you can.
RDRC: I know Durango is home to a handful of world-class athletes. Are any of them on the Tailwind team, and if so, what's the feedback you get from them?
JEFF: Maggie Guterl is our Athlete and Trailblazer Manager. She’s an incredible ultra-runner, winning Big’s Backyard Ultra in 2019 and the Cocodona 250 this year (250 miles through the Arizona desert!). During Cocodona, it was extremely hot and dusty, and Tailwind was all Maggie could tolerate. It got her through to the finish line as the first female finisher. We’re fortunate to have a number of Durango athletes in our Trailblazer program, including triathletes, runners, cyclists, and cross country skiers. They’ve been incredibly helpful testing products, helping us at events, and spreading the word.
RDRC: What's your athletic background? Runner? Cyclist? Swimmer? Something else? Did you start as a kid? Or come to endurance sport in middle age? And how much sport are you able do in a typical week? [Tailwind-fueled, I presume!] Do you have any interesting races on your bucket list?
JEFF: I didn’t start competing in endurance events until I was in my 30s. As a kid, I enjoyed all kinds of sports, soccer especially, but also skiing, and I ran track in middle and high school and dabbled in football and cross country as well. Growing up in Colorado, I enjoyed backpacking and hiking, which I continue to enjoy today. I took up mountain biking in college, and Jenny and I got to know each other on mountain bike rides in the Pacific Northwest. That’s still my main sport, but I like trail running, hiking, skate skiing, snowshoeing – anything that gets me outdoors! Racing has given way to going on trips with friends, most recently enduro riding in northern Portugal. Upcoming in a couple weeks is a White Rim in a Day – a 100-mile loop in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. I usually exercise 5-6 days a week, mostly an hour or so during weekdays and longer on the weekends. And yes, using Tailwind of course!