Busting the Myths about Energy Bars, Gels, and Sports Drinks

Chocolate Milk
Chocolate Milk. Wendy Bumgardner ©

You are headed out for a long walk, or trying to do your best time on a 10K or half-marathon. What should you eat and drink for energy? Is that expensive energy bar any better than a Pop Tart or some trail mix? The Stone Research Foundation's Athletes' Advisory Board says no, that energy bars and energy gels are just more convenient, not any better at improving endurance or performance.

Energy Gels vs. Grape Jelly

Energy gels are in convenient packets for squirting into your mouth and washing down with plenty of water. No chewing needed - which can prevent choking when you are huffing and puffing. They are a sugar boost, although each one touts itself as being more gentle on the digestive system than the others, each with different kinds of sugars. One of my marathon walking buddies often wonders why he doesn't just water down some jelly, put it into a little flask, and use that rather than spend a dollar a packet or more for sports energy gel. The Stone Research Foundation would tell him to do it - that energy gels have the same nutritional profile as a Jell-O Pop. If you choose to make your own, experiment with it on your longer walks just as you would with the energy gels.

Energy Bars vs. a Snickers or a Pop Tart

You can spend $1-3 on fancy energy bars, each saying they provide carbs and protein in a magic mix. But Stone Research Foundation say most of them are no different from a Snickers bar or a Pop Tart. I carry along an energy bar for convenience on a long walk, and I select one that is easy to chew and doesn't have a coating that will melt in the wrapper. I avoid low carb bars that use sugar alcohols because they have dire effects on my digestive tract, from nausea to loose stools. You do not want those symptoms when on a long walk. You can save money by buying trail mix or mixing up some of your own from raisins, nuts, yogurt chips, etc.
Trail Mix Recipes

Hydrate With Water and Sports Drink

Water is the best way to replenish your body when you are exercising for an hour or less. But if you are going for endurance and you are sweating a lot, you need carbs and salt to replenish yourself. Sports drinks with carbohydrates and electrolytes provide these needed replacements when you are walking, running, or biking for over an hour. The Stone Research Foundation says that many people drink more water when it is flavored. Add a bit of instant lemonade mix to your water bottle, or a squirt of lemon juice. Endurance athletes say that too-sugared drinks such as fruit juices or colas can cause nausea. If sports drinks taste too sweet to you, experiment with different mixtures.
Sports Drink Recipes


Fancy energy gels, energy bars, and energy drinks may have a whole pharmacy's worth of herbs and supplements in them. But the Stone Research Foundation says that only two supplements have been shown to have any effect when you exercise: caffeine as a stimulant, and creatine to build muscle. If you are a believer in other additives, I suggest saving them till after you are done with your long workout rather than risking any digestive upset from them.

Convenience May Win Sometimes

You can save money by making your own energy snacks and sports drink, but there will still be times when it is more convenient to just buy it off the shelf. Find one that is less expensive, without unneeded supplements. Shop for taste as well as convenience. I buy Clif bars for my longest walks because they are easy to chew - but the wrapper is very difficult to open. Before I leave home, I chop it into bite size chunks and carry it in a small sandwich bag. I carry along packets or small baggies of sports drink mix so I can mix my own in my water bottle on my long walks.

Recovery Drinks vs. a Frappachino

Afterwards, shouldn't you have a fancy recovery drink? Nothing high-tech is required, research says chocolate milk does just as good of a job, as would any drink that has both protein and carbohydrate. Reward yourself with a mocha latte or a frappachino and you'll be providing protein, carbs, and caffeine - the perfect end to a great workout!

Source: Athlete's Advisory Board, Stone Research Foundation Symposium, June 1, 2005.