Hit or Skip the Sports Bar?
When you're on the run, whether you're busy training or you just don't have time to eat a proper meal, many of us reach for a sports bar those brightly packaged concoctions promising to deliver protein, nutrition and energy for a couple of dollars and about 200 calories.
And once you set foot into your local running or sports outfitter, your options quickly swell into a multi-colored buffet of bars, gels, beans, powders and gummies to boost your energy, provide you with protein, hydrate you or replenish your depleted electrolytes.
So it's no surprise that the Sports Nutrition industry is big business - with the global market worth nearly $30 billion (US), and the U.S. market expected to reach $17.5 billion this year. And when you look at an athlete's grocery bill, you'll see why - all these engineered bars, powders and gels aren't cheap.
But do they really do what they say they do? Will they help you run faster, cycle farther or perform better? Are they really necessary? Or are there cheaper, more natural alternatives available?
While athletes do expend more energy daily than your average person, that shouldn't be a free pass to eat whatever you want, whenever you want. Many athletes are consuming half their calories through these sports nutrition products, which are full of artificial colors, preservatives and lots of simple sugars.
There's no question that it's important to fuel up before, during and after exercising to give your muscles the carbohydrates and other nutrients they need to recover for the next session. But there's no research that proves that any sports bar or any other product contributes to enhanced performance beyond the energy (or carbohydrate calories) you'd otherwise get from bananas or any of the foods you'd find in your local supermarket.
And any energy boost you feel from sports aids prior to working out is more likely due to its carbohydrate content rather than any special ingredient. In fact, a banana, some pretzels or a bagel with jam can provide you with the same amount of pre-workout energy.
If you do choose to consume sports bars or any other solid sports nutrition product, however, it's essential to drink plenty of fluids when you consume them, whether it's before, during or after exercising. While sports bars may provide energy, you need to be properly hydrated for optimal performance.
While there's a time and a place for 'sports aids', often enough, we choose to eat these products because we're short on time and we want something that's convenient, and presumably more nutritious than junk food. They certainly last longer and travel better than apples and oranges - but they still can't replace the value of a whole food. So if you do opt for a protein or meal-replacement bar, try accompanying it with some real foods as well, such as a fresh vegetable, or some raw nuts or seeds.
Here's a quick review and explanation of what's available in the sports nutrition aisle - as well as some natural alternatives:
Sports gels are a mix of simple and complex carbohydrates and water, as well as trace amounts of electrolytes, vitamins and minerals, and sometimes caffeine. Their purpose is to provide a quick burst of energy while you're exercising, and because they have no fiber or protein, many sports nutritionists believe they're more easily and quickly assimilated into the bloodstream. You should always accompany sports gels with water.
Natural Alternatives: Try honey, agave nectar or maple syrup for a quick boost of energy and carbohydrates. These unrefined, natural sources of sugar are often much cheaper than man-made alternatives. Just add a little water and carry some in a gel flask to consume at regular intervals, just as you would with a sports gel. Two tbsp. should equal roughly 30g of carbohydrates, the amount you need for one hour of exercise. Add a couple pinches of sea salt to improve the electrolyte quantity.
Sports bars are dehydrated fortified snacks containing a mix of simple and complex carbohydrates - and usually have protein, fat, fiber, and added vitamins and minerals. Most have between 100 to 300 calories. Sports bars have more carbohydrates than protein bars, and therefore offer more usable energy before and during low-impact activity. They are a source of portable fuel before or after exercising. Consuming water along with your sports bar is always recommended.
Natural Alternatives: Many sports bars are just glorified chocolate bars made of high fructose corn syrup, sugar and milk protein. Lara Bars are a simpler alternative made from dates and nuts. They may be too high in fiber for your pre-exercise routine, but they make a great recovery snack, with about 200 calories of mixed carbohydrates, protein and good-quality fat.
Sports drinks are usually water mixed with various types of simple sugars (sucrose, fructose, glucose) and a small amount of electrolytes and flavoring. They are designed to maximize fluid absorption and provide carbohydrates for energy and enhanced performance.
Natural Alternatives: Try a ½ or ¾ cup of organic grape juice along with two pints of water and a pinch of sea salt. You'll get similar results while saving money and avoiding all the fluorescent coloring and refined sugar of sports drinks. Some people have trouble digesting fructose, so try this during training instead of right before race day. You can also try coconut water, which contains far more potassium (a vital electrolyte) than sports drinks, as well as enough carbohydrates for an hour-long exercise session.
Recovery drinks are moderate to high-carbohydrate beverages with a significant amount of protein, and a lesser amount of fat, vitamins, minerals and electrolytes. They were developed after research showed that adding protein to the carbohydrates athletes consume after exercise facilitated glycogen storage in muscles - meaning it helps you store energy in your muscles for your next exercise session.
Natural Alternatives: Many tout chocolate milk as the ultimate recovery drink due to its carbohydrate/protein mix. According to an Indiana University study, drinking chocolate milk post-exercise speeds recovery and increases your endurance in subsequent training sessions better than sports drinks. But milk can be difficult for many of us at the best of times, and even harder after intense exercise. Brendan Brazier, vegan triathlete and founder of the VEGA brand, opts for a more natural approach. He creates a recovery pudding or smoothie consisting of organic banana, blueberries, tofu, carob powder, a pear, and a drop of stevia and sea salt to provide carbohydrates, protein and electrolytes after a workout.
In the end, you shouldn't rely on sports bars, drinks and gels to replace meals and snacks throughout the day. Use them sparingly as nutrition before, during and after a workout. Or better yet, eat fruits and other whole foods or make your own products and save money while increasing your nutrient intake.
Whether you're an athlete training for competition or just a weekend warrior trying to keep in shape, it's important to make sure you're getting enough fuel to optimize your training stamina and endurance. But it doesn't have to be scientifically engineered in order to help you power through a workout or enhance your performance.