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Sport Nutrition- Energy Bars, Gels- an overview

The sport nutrition market has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry.  There are many different products available for pre, during and post workout nutrition.  Most of these companies have grown from offering one product to offering a whole spectrum of products.  Most of these products focus on one of three important areas- pre workout, during workout and post workout and each is formulated to specifically meet the needs of the body at those times. Most companies are also broadening their reach by offering bars, gels and drinks.

Some of the more common brand names are PowerBar, Cliff Bar, GU and Gatorade.  There are dozens of smaller companies breaking their way into the market as well; Honey stinger, eload, Vega and Lara Bar to name a few.

The best strategy for longer workouts is to eat small amounts frequently and preferably choose a product that is for during activity.  Typically products labeled as “during” will be carbohydrate rich and lower in protein and fat which is harder to digest at effort.

What are some examples of food or energy products I can eat during long training sessions?

Energy bars

Energy bars are packaged and textured along the lines of a chocolate bar. They often contain between 40-50 grams of carbohydrate and are typically a mix of ingredients that are primarily carbohydrate rich with small amounts of protein and fat.  Bars that target before or during activity tend to stay away from fat and carbohydrate as those macronutrients are harder to digest especially during effort when the digestive system is not overly active.  Energy Bars that target post workout or race nutrition are often much higher in protein, perhaps some essential fatty acids and of course carbohydrate to replace what you may have lost during exercise. Energy bars usually cost $1.99-$3.99

Gels

Gels more typically focus on during activity nutrition.  They are usually carbohydrate rich and provide little if any protein or fat content.  Gels are very concentrated semi-liquid concoctions that have the consistency of runny icing sugar. Gels often come with the recommendation to consume with water and for good reason.  If the concentration of sugar is too high it can be hard for the gut to absorb. Gels typically contain 20-30 grams of carbohydrate per package and usually cost $1.50-$3.00

Drinks

Energy drinks are often offered in before, during and after formulations. Energy drinks typically contain between 35-50 grams of carbohydrate per 700ml serving.  Energy drinks either come as ready to drink or in powder form that you mix with water. Mixing these energy drinks to the specifications identified is incredibly important because it usually correlates with a concentration that is most appropriate for optimal absorption. Energy drinks typically cost $1.99-$3.99 per serving. There are many main stream companies like Gatorade and Powerade but also dozens of smaller highly functional companies that offer great products like Infinit, Eload and GU.

Here are some examples of companies that offer before, during and after training or competition nutritional products

Companies that offer “before” products

PowerBar

Vega

Cliff Bar

GU

Infinit Nutrition

Eload

 

Companies that offer “during activity” nutrition

PowerBar

Vega

Cliff Bar

GU

Honey Stinger

Infinit Nutrition

Eload

 

Companies that offer “post activity” nutrition

PowerBar

Vega

Cliff Bar

Honey Stinger

GU

Infinit Nutrition

What if I don’t like eating “sport energy products”- Are there suitable alternatives?

There are plenty of foods you can eat that will do the trick before during and after training or racing that don’t involve having to drop money on an “energy nutriton” products

Before

Nutriton before a workout needs to happen 2-3 hours prior to the start and needs to focus on carbohydrate rich foods (lower glycemic index) with small amounts of protein and fat. Pre workout nutrition can be more or less balanced with an emphasis on carbohydrate. Some examples of good pre race foods are:

Oatmeal, Quinoa, Bagels with nut butter and banana, low fiber fruits like bananas

Avoid: foods that are high in fat or protein or high on the glycemic index scale, foods that don’t agree with your digestive tract or that you have mild allergies to

During

Nutrition during a workout needs to focus primarily on carbohydrate because this is primarily what your body is burning.  It’s important to avoid dumping too much carbohydrate into your gut at one time.  Eat or drink small amounts frequently.  Some examples of good food to eat during activity:

Bananas, bagles (lower fiber preferably), dates, almond butter and banana sandwich (for lower intensity, longer workouts), almond butter and banana in a soft shell tortilla wrap (again for longer lower intensity workouts)

Avoid: foods that are high in fat or protein (during lower intensity long endurance work you can get away with more)

After

Nutrition after a workout or a race needs to focus on replacing carbohydrate stores as well as refueling the body with good fat and protein to help regenerate muscle tissue. A balanced meal is usually the best course of action after a long hard workout.  Here are some examples of food to eat post activity:

Lentils, lean meats, nut butters, low glycemic index fruit, quality plant based protein like hemp and pea

Avoid: high glycemic index foods, bad fats, “acidic” causing foods like caffeine, deep fried foods, alcohol

What is the difference between products that are labeled as pre, during and post workout?

Before

Nutriton before a workout needs to happen 2-3 hours prior to the start and needs to focus on carbohydrate rich foods (lower glycemic index) with small amounts of protein and fat. Pre workout nutrition can be more or less balanced with an emphasis on carbohydrate. Energy products that are labeled as “before” usually focus on carbohydrate rich ingredients with lower glycemic index to avoid a sugar spike and crash.  Pre workout nutrition products will often have small amounts of fat and protein.

Some examples of good pre workout foods are:

Oatmeal, Quinoa, Bagels with nut butter and banana, low fiber fruits like bananas

Avoid: foods that are high in fat or protein or high on the glycemic index scale, foods that don’t agree with your digestive tract or that you have mild allergies to

During

Nutrition during a workout needs to focus primarily on carbohydrate because this is primarily what your body is burning.  It’s important to avoid dumping too much carbohydrate into your gut at one time.  Eat or drink small amounts frequently. Nutrition products that focus on “during activity” contain mostly carbohydrate and occasionally have small amounts of protein. During very long endurance events some protein and even very small amounts of fat can be beneficial.

Some examples of good food to eat during activity:

Bananas, bagles (lower fiber preferably), dates, almond butter and banana sandwich (for lower intensity, longer workouts), almond butter and banana in a soft shell tortilla wrap (again for longer lower intensity workouts)

Avoid: foods that are high in fat or protein (during lower intensity long endurance work you can get away with more)

After

Nutrition after a workout or a race needs to focus on replacing carbohydrate stores as well as refueling the body with good fat and protein to help regenerate muscle tissue. A balanced meal is usually the best course of action after a long hard workout. Energy nutrition products that focus on “after workout” are typically much higher in protein and ideally some good fat as well as containing significant amounts of carbohydrate to replenish depleted glycogen stores.

Here are some examples of food to eat post activity:

Lentils, lean meats, nut butters, low glycemic index fruit, quality plant based protein like hemp and pea

Avoid: high glycemic index foods, bad fats, “acidic” causing foods like caffeine, deep fried foods, alcohol

What about nutrition? How do I stay fueled for a long race?

The human body can last, on average, 60-90 minutes on its stored muscle glycogen.  Muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) is the primary fuel source used by the body for most endurance events.  Fat is also a fuel but typically we have enough fat stored to last several days.  If our muscle glycogen stores run out then it is known as hitting the wall or bonking.  Due to the length of a marathon or long triathlon event, fueling becomes essential for most people.  There are a few basic rules you can use to determine how much you should consume.

 

Rule #1

Consume 1-2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour.  If the event you are doing will take you less than an hour you may not need to fuel at all.

 

Rule #2

The higher the intensity of the event (the higher your effort level) generally the harder it is to consume and absorb calories or carbohydrates.  Thankfully the faster you are going typically the shorter the race, which may mean you require less fueling.   For a marathon you will need to consume some kind of carbohydrate no matter who you are.  If you are an elite runner staying close to your 85% threshold effort then you will likely need to be down around 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour.  However if you are in a 3-hour plus event and not at the elite level you may need to be consuming closer to 1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour.  If you are in the 4 plus hour category and your effort level is down in the 60% category then you can probably consume 1.5-2 grams per hour.  It is very important to know where you fit and practice any nutritional strategies.

 

Rule #3

Consuming small amounts of fuel frequently is the best way to avoid stomach problems.  No matter what effort you are at, if you dump too much carbohydrate into your system at once it may come back to haunt you.  The digestive system can only handle so much at one time and as your effort increases the amount you can tolerate will typically decrease.  Aid stations usually occur every mile or every 5-12 minutes during the race so it is a good idea to practice this fueling using this time frame in training.

 

Rule #4

Everyone is different when it comes to nutrition and understanding what you can consume is absolutely essential to a successful process.

 

Rule #5

Practice is the single best way to nail down your nutritional strategy for a long endurance event.  The more you practice your nutrition the more comfortable and confident you will become in the process.

How often should I practice my race day nutrition?

Once you are within 16 weeks of your goal race it is a good idea to practice your nutrition on a weekly basis.  The smartest time to do this is during your race specific workouts that target the pace you will be moving at during the event.  It is important to train your body to take in and absorb your nutrition at the same effort you will be competing at.

What about Hydration?

Hydration in events exceeding on hour or in very hot locations is very important.  Hydration is similar to nutrition in that you want to consume small amounts frequently.  Water is lost through sweat and respiration (breathing) and must be replaced.  A decrease in body fluid can have disastrous consequences.  We lose water constantly through sweat and respiration as well as through excretion of waste products like urine and bowel movements.  Water must constantly be replaced for survival and optimal performance.

 

Hydration is a measure of the water contained in your blood stream.  As you get dehydrated your blood volume drops and your effective percentage of red blood cells (in that blood volume) increases.  An increase in red blood cell percentage due to a decrease in overall blood plasma volume causes the blood to become thicker and harder for the heart to pump.  A typical reaction to dehydration is that your heart rate will increase in order to provide the blood required for the desired effort.  Core body temperature also increases when we are dehydrated which effectively increases the stress and perceived effort on the body.

 

A good rule of thumb is to consume between 800ml and 1200ml of fluid per hour depending on the weather conditions and your body size and sweat rate.

Is it possible to overhydrate?

It is definitely possible to consume too much fluid before, during and after exercise.  Remember also that hydration is a measure of fluid in the blood stream not in the stomach.  If you lose too much sodium in your sweat it becomes difficult for the body to pull fluid from the gut into the blood stream.  There are cases where people will consume vast amounts of fluid only to have it reside in the gut.  People who experience this will feel bloated and may even start throwing up.  This is one of the reasons sports drinks contain sodium.  Sodium will move from the gut into the blood stream causing an osmotic gradient that effectively allows water to follow.

What about sodium?

Replacing sodium is one of the most important aspects of a good hydration strategy.  Typically sodium is not a concern in events shorter than 4 hours.  However, extremely hot conditions can affect sodium levels during shorter distances.  Sodium will move from the gut into the blood stream causing an osmotic gradient that effectively allows water to follow.  Sodium is also important in muscle contraction and relaxation.  People who experience low sodium levels may also notice muscle cramping.  Sodium is easy to underdo but quite difficult to overdo.  In events lasting longer than 4 hours a good rule of thumb is to consume 500-1000mg per hour of activity.  Most sport drinks and/or sodium specific energy nutrition products will allow you to reach these numbers by consuming their products alone.  However it is always important to “do the math”.  There are a number of products available that are designed to replace sodium as well as a number of other electrolytes.  Salt stick is perhaps the best product on the market currently and can be found here

Why is it important to practice my nutrition on the longer workouts?

It is important to practice what you will take in nutritionally on a regular basis so there are no surprises on race day.  Practicing trains and teaches your body to process and absorb calories while you are at effort.  Any problems you may be experiencing with the nutritional side of things can be worked out in your training sessions so there are no surprises on race day.  The final reason nutrition is important on your long runs is because the run itself will be easier to complete and recover from if you are consuming calories with regularity throughout.

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