I was walking back to the Pinkbike booth after a meeting at the Sea Otter Classic, when I came upon the Skratch Labs booth. Not having had lunch yet, and seeing the long line for free samples at their booth, I decided to freeload. As I was "sampling" their brand new Ginger & Miso bar and a couple Matcha Green Tea & Lemon chews, it turns out one guy working the booth was none other than the company's founder Dr. Allen Lim. He's an exercise physiologist and former coach to Tour de France cycling teams who has three cookbooks aimed at endurance athletes in print, two of which I own.
I wasn't planning on doing an interview, but his insights and the thoughtful conversation I had with him made me dig deeper. Allen's philosophy that endurance athletes should eat simple, real food to avoid discomfort and stay strong on the bike all day long goes far beyond the roadie peloton, and should be considered by mountain bikers as well.
Who are you?Dr. Allen Lim:
My name is Doctor Allan Lim, but people just call me Al or whatever. I'm not that kind of doctor, though. I have my PhD in physiology, so if it itches or it burns, I'm not the right guy.
What led you to start Skratch Labs? Dr. Allen Lim:
What led me to start Skratch Labs was I was in a place in my life where nobody else would give me a job. Yeah, long story short, I had previously been a coach and sports scientist for a Pro Cycling Tour team - that's roadies. When I was working on the Pro Cycling Tour, I had realized that there was a big problem with the sports nutrition of the athletes, because they were bitching and moaning about it all the time. It's a pretty easy problem to realize when someone's complaining.
What we realized was that if we made more, or all, of their food from scratch - their energy bars, their sports drinks - that these athletes perform better. So it was a pain in the ass, but I took it upon myself to literally travel with a rice cooker, make little sushi rice cakes for these guys, and blend sports drinks for them that were less sweet, had more electrolytes, and were simply flavored. Towards the end of my career, this guy I was working for got embroiled in this federal investigation, and as you may know, that kind of detonated my career. When I was back home in Boulder, Colorado, all these athletes were asking me for this sports drink that I made. Initially, I was like, you can all go F yourself, I'm like you know, I'm watching Netflix, looking for a job. But then I'd feel guilty about it, so I started making them the sports drink, and it just slowly evolved into what is now today's Skratch Labs.
So, this company started very organically. Initially, there wasn't this desire to you know, start a company. I didn't know anything about business, I'm a physiologist, but I got really inspired by the fact that not just these elite pro roadies were having this problem, but everyday athletes were having issues with gut rot and GI distress and poor sports nutrition. I wanted to start communicating a simpler message. This message that,
For me, that's how I always saw food, that's always how I saw sports nutrition. So, my friend Biju Thomas and I started writing a series of cookbooks called The Feed Zone cookbook series. We've got three books now, and it's been really fun to talk about sports nutrition, not just in the context of the prepackaged foods we make from our energy bars or chews to drink mix, but to also talk about it in the context of, well here are the recipes and ideas that can help you eat better. And I think with the recipes and ideas, if you end up being time strapped or you end up needing alternatives that are more convenient, well then we do have our energy bars, we do have our sports drinks, we do have our recovery drinks. But bottom line is that you can make most of this stuff at home, on your own, in your own home.
So, yeah. That's effectively how we started. We're six years old now, it's been a big learning experience, we have a phenomenal team based in Boulder, Colorado, and we're just trying to have as much fun as possible. We're privately owned and independently funded. We don't have anyone to answer to so we can be zany and weird and be ourselves and take care of people.
And your distribution online or through bike shops and grocery stores? Dr. Allen Lim:
We distribute in all the ways that people distribute, so primarily it's through independent bike dealers. We have about six thousand IBDs in small running stores, specialty shops across the United States. But we also distribute in Mexico, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the UK, South Korea.
Yeah, it's all about the small specialty store but we also have a really good online business, Skratchlabs.com, and other e-commerce sites - Competitive Cyclist, Backcountry. We sell through some natural grocery stores, you know, Whole Foods. People find us in all places. It's been a lot of fun.
Can you talk about how the name Skratch Labs came about? Dr. Allen Lim:
Well, the name really began when my parents first decided to move us all to America. My family's story is all about running away from shit. Whether it's the Japanese invasion of China on my mom's side of the family, whether it was the communist revolution on my dad's side of the family. My parents are Chinese, they eventually met in the Philippines, but when I was born there was a president named Ferdinand Marcos who was a total tyrant. The day he declared Martial Law in the Philippines, my dad got on a plane and flew to America. About seven months later, the rest of the family was in America. My parents literally started from scratch. My dad's first job was bagging groceries for a Chinese supermarket, just outside of East LA. So for me, I've always grown up with this idea that no matter where you find yourself in life, you can always start from scratch. And I found myself in this place in life where I had to reinvent myself. So, this company started because I was, along with two really good friends, Ian McGregor and Aaron Foster, starting our lives over from Skratch.
That being said, what I learned in pro cycling is that food and drink are just better from scratch. So there's kind of dual meaning here.
You can be a hedonist and live a life, you know, that is about finding pleasure, but that you can also be a rationalist. You can also think about how to solve your problems using real experience, experiments and real science. So, heart and head. Skratch Labs.
What have you learned in the past six years with this company?Dr. Allen Lim:
I've learned so much it's hard to even begin to describe how much I've learned. I've learned that you can't do anything by yourself. It takes a whole entire team. Everyone that works at Skratch Labs makes up for some tragic flaw in myself, so it's neat when all of a sudden, you have people ... not who you're taking care of, but who are taking care of you. So maybe a major part of that shift I learned about working in this world, surviving in this world, is that it's not necessarily about taking, it's not necessarily about confrontation. It's about giving, and it's about collaboration. Because when you start to see it as people are giving to you, not what you have to provide to other people, that paradigm shift is incredibly powerful. For me, that took away the anxiety. The "What's next?" or "What do I have to do?" It took away the "should," which was such a negative word and filled with complaint and regret, and it put me into the present. "We have to do this", not "We should do this."
The other thing I learned is that you can figure stuff out that you don't know if you're willing to try. A lot of people complain that it's all a drop in the bucket, that there is no use in trying. But as my good friend Shannon Galpin who started the Afghan Women's cycling team said, be the drop. Fill your bucket. That's what it takes to run a business. It takes just these tiny little drops every single day. It's in some ways extraordinary laborious, but in that labor, you find kind of a sense of peace and flow. You have to persist and grit through a lot of stuff that you don't like to do, you know?. For me, it's a reminder of delayed gratification. Mostly, I think that it reaffirmed my own parents' sense of the American dream.
How many people do you work with now? Dr. Allen Lim:
We have about 20 full-time employees in Boulder, Colorado. We have a pretty extensive network across the US and distributors across the world. So the team is getting bigger and bigger, you know?
How are the cookbooks tied to the Skratch Labs products and company?Dr. Allen Lim:
The cookbooks are integrally tied to Skratch Labs, in so much that we're a sports nutrition company, and as a sports nutrition company solving problems for endurance athletes, you have to have recipes and ideas, as well as products, right? Because we don't only eat energy bars. We don't only eat chews, we don't only drink sports drinks, right? We don't only eat by ourselves and when we're on the bicycle. We're human beings. So for me, it's as important as a company to teach life skills associated with taking care of oneself, as it is to sell products that help to do that same. I don't think that we would be really balanced as a company if we didn't invest in these cookbooks, if we didn't have these cookbooks, and if we didn't continue to help educate others on how to take better care of themselves.
What kind of nutrition would you recommend for an hour-long full out effort versus a full day on the bike?Dr. Allen Lim:
There's a big difference. I think that a lot of people forget that for very short and intense events that it's what you eat before, it's what you eat the night before that matters more than what you actually eat on the bicycle. That on the bicycle for those short, intense events, it's really most important just to stay hydrated. But even for shorter events, your body has plenty of water and sodium stores, we're pretty resilient. And sometimes keeping an empty stomach is the right way to go.
For longer days, like an enduro event, when you're out there all day long, when you have a little more time between the whole technical downhill sections, you can take some time to feed yourself and to have actual real food and think about it as if you were just living your day, where you have a breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Or you take time to fill your stomach which acts as a reservoir for food, which that slowly trickles that energy into your body throughout the day.
You know, I don't think there's necessarily anything special about sports nutrition, except that hopefully it's simpler, hopefully it tastes good, hopefully it's got a mixed macronutrients profile. Ultimately, when you're exercising it's about carbohydrates, it's about salt, total calories, and trying to supplement what your body can't carry. The human body can only hold 2,000 to 3,000 calories worth of glycogen, so if you're out there all day long, 5,000 calories burned, you're going to need to replace at least 2,000 calories, or anywhere from 200 to 500 calories an hour. Who knows, it depends on who you are.
But, when they go beyond that, or they try to get too in their heads, like for example if you're not thirsty and you start pounding a bunch of water, you could get hyponatremia, you could dilute your sodium source. So there's a reason why the thirst mechanism exists. But, you're losing salt in your sweat, so why not replace the salt, that makes sense and all of a sudden your thirst mechanism works better because now it's a good barometer for both water balance and sodium balance.
So you say that like it's an easy thing to be in tune with your body. Do you think it's that easy to know exactly what your body needs? Dr. Allen Lim:
Well, maybe if you read my next book that has not yet been written called You and Your Changing Body
, you could provide some of those tips and tricks. It's not easy but I think that that's why it's interesting to be an endurance athlete. Because no matter what side of the sport you're on, you're always pushing yourself and you're always realizing a breaking point. And every one of those breaking points is a lesson that can help you to get more in tune. I think that without the challenge, it would be impossible to know what you need, right?
If you look at the Skratch Labs bar or the chews and the drink mix, what is in those things?Dr. Allen Lim:
Food. One distinction that I think a lot of people miss about our company is that we're not a supplement company. We're first and foremost a food company under the guise of the FDA. So that means that we have very strict guidelines and regulations about how we put stuff together, about our ingredient panel, about what we can and can't say on our packaging. So, every ingredient in all of our products is a real, whole food ingredient, and that's how we like to put together our products. That's how we intentionally designed all of our products. They're just food products, they just happen to be catered towards this community that we know very, very well, right? So our energy bar, you can really eat anytime you're hungry, right? It's a mixed macronutrients profile. It's basically a nutter butter blend that's aired out with quinoa crisps, brown rice crisps, sorghum flakes, because when an energy bar gets too dense you can't bite into it, right? So you need that ability in a bar that actually has a low water content to have texture to bite, to chew. With that nut butter base, we make it slightly sweet with coconut nectar instead of brown rice syrup, because brown rice syrup ends up gunking your palate, so we try to keep things super clean because we don't want that flavor fatigue.
And then from there, chocolate chips, almonds, some diced cranberries, our cherries and pistachios are literally diced sweet cherries with pistachios. And then we know a lot of people get blown out on sweet stuff, so we make our ginger miso which is candied ginger miso, shiitake mushroom, soy, red pepper flake, and it's spiced to wake you up. It's a dangerous flavor. But, it's an exciting flavor because you want something different.
So the way we think about it, is just the way that we know the endurance community thinks about it. And we just try to put together simple foods to address their needs.
What is gut rot, from a scientific perspective? Dr. Allen Lim:
So, gut rot is when the rate of gastric emptying, so the rate at which food comes out of your stomach, is at a faster rate than your small intestine can absorb. So, I think something people don't realize when they think about digestion, is that there are two major steps in the abdominal region. The belly, or the stomach, digests food, mixes food, is a big reservoir for food, and ultimately creates a liquid called chyme. That liquid goes through your pyloric sphincter into a region called your small intestine, or the gut. It's in the small intestine or the gut where that water and those nutrients are absorbed. But, if what's coming out of your stomach comes out at a faster rate than what your gut can absorb, you end up having a big traffic jam and you get bloated, distended, that high concentration of chyme causes water from inside of your body to flow across the small intestine into your gut and then once it's in the intestinal lumen, there's nowhere else for it to go except out your butt hole.
Take for example an energy chew versus a highly concentrated gel. A chew will at least hold up in the stomach a little better and then create a consistent stream of energy into the small intestine, whereas a gel is a fine product if you meter it yourself, but if you take too much at one time you could create a traffic jam and have some of that gut rot.
What cyclists does Skratch Labs work with now?Dr. Allen Lim:
We don't work with anyone in particular. We have a big ambassador team, but I don't know if just because we sponsor someone that it means that our products are good, it just means that we have money to pay someone. And so, having been in the sponsorship game for a long time, I tend to find it to be a little disingenuous. I guess you can ask your customers or your readers if they use our products. I'd like to think that they do and that you know, our existence, our sales numbers say that there are a lot of different types of cyclists and endurance athletes that use our products. But yeah, I can't point to anyone in particular.
So how do you think Skratch Labs has grown?Dr. Allen Lim:
I think it's a hundred percent word of mouth. Our marketing is fairly unconventional. We don't do any advertising, you know, we do some of the Facebook stuff and some of the Instagram stuff and social media, obviously. But it's not like we're taking out ads or have commercials. It's being at events like Sea Otter where we make the assumption that nobody knows who we are and we try to educate and take care of people. And I think that we've grown because people recognize that when we're at these events we do our best to try to take care of folks. I don't know if there's another way to do it, without being a total... dick.
What is your day to day with the company look like?Dr. Allen Lim:
Emails. Just sending a lot of emails, responding a lot of emails, getting hung up on a bunch of emails because you know you get that email and you're like "I can't fill this request right now", and then you gotta do something with it, but then it makes your inbox look like you haven't answered a hundred emails and you get all stressed out. So yeah, that's what I do. I'm a desk jockey. But, my day to day is also working with my leadership team because they're the ones who are really taking care of business and making sure that I'm informed and that I contribute my perspective. It's being a face to the brand, it's giving a lot of lectures, it's creating educational materials. It's a lot of what I used to do when I was a sports scientist and coach, except for a bigger audience and figuring out how to connect and educate that bigger audience.
How does what you're doing now differ to what you were doing before with pro cycling teams? Dr. Allen Lim:
You know, when I was working with pro cycling teams, it was very, very hands on. It was very... I had just a few relationships that I had to worry about, right? So it was very, very intimate. Now, I think that my life feels a bit more like being in a classroom, where I have many more students. You're still trying to create a great experience and a high level of quality, but it's not like tutoring a handful of kids, right? So, I don't know. Maybe it's like the difference between Montessori and a big ass public high school. But they all have their benefits and you know, we're all just trying to help people become better.
So you feel like your sense of purpose is very clear at Skratch Labs?Dr. Allen Lim:
Yeah, for sure, for sure. We're constantly thinking about our goals, we're constantly reevaluating. So that purpose and that meaning constantly changes. It changes depending on our needs, our goals, and what people are asking for us. So we take a lot of our cues now from our customers. And those customers have different needs from pro athletes.
And if you have one piece of advice you could leave the Pinkbike audience with, what would it be? Dr. Allen Lim:
Stop using the word "should" in your life, and you'll be amazed at how much more you accomplish. When you say "should," you're often in more of a dream state, a possibility state, and the word "should" is part of what is called a subjunctive mood state, which is a state of imagination. While there's a lot of possibility in should, there's also a lot of regret and complaint, and so if you think about that word and how you're using it, you may find that you're not getting stuff done because you rely on that word too much. Try not to use it for a whole entire day, you might get a lot more done.
Learn more about Skratch Labs here