Engineered Sports Foods/Gels/Bars

author : Nancy Clark
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Energy Bars, Gels & Electrolyte Replacers: Are they essential sports foods?

“I don’t like gels, so I only drink water on my long runs — but how can I keep myself from bonking at mile 18?”
“I’m training for an Ironman triathlon. Which products are best to replace the electrolytes I lose in sweat?”
“Do PowerBars have special performance-enhancing ingredients?”

If you are among the many endurance athletes who have no idea which engineered sports foods are the best choices to fuel your sport, welcome to the club! Advertisements have led many active people—not just marathoners and triathletes, but anyone who breaks a sweat—to believe that energy bars, gels, and electrolyte replacers (among other commercial sports foods) are a necessary part of a sports diet. While there is a time and a place for pre-packaged sports foods, many active people needlessly spend a lot of money misusing them. The purpose of this article is to help you become an informed consumer.

Pre-exercise Energy Bars

While fueling with a pre-workout “high performance” energy bar is one way to energize your workout, you could less expensively consume 250 calories of Fig Newtons or a granola bar. All will offer the “magical” energy source that muscles need for a high-energy workout: carbohydrate!

The best pre-exercise snacks are foods that digest easily and do not talk back to you. Standard supermarket foods can do that as well as engineered products. Experiment to determine which foods settle best in your body during exercise.


While some runners and cyclists love the convenience of gels (such as Gu, Clif Shots) during training sessions that last longer then 90 minutes, others dislike their consistency or the way they might create digestive issues. Gels generally offer 100 calories from some form of sugar. If your body is not accustomed to digesting that particular type of sugar, you might end up with undesired pit stops. Always experiment with new products such as gels during long training sessions!!!

Some popular alternatives to the 100 calories of carbohydrate (sugar) in the gel include gummy candies (Swedish fish, gummy bears), twizzlers, gumdrops, peppermint patties, marshmallows, whoppers, M&Ms, maple sugar candy, and/or swigs of honey or maple syrup. The trick is to figure out how to carry the fuel (and how to keep it from melting in the heat). During exercise, you want to target 200 to 300 calories per hour (depending on your body type and sport), so read the label’s Nutrition Facts to determine the right amount to have available.


You can find an abundant amount of electrolytes (electrically charged particles, most commonly known as sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium) in “real foods” – including fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, and dairy foods. These real foods are generally far less expensive electrolyte replacers.

Sodium enhances fluid retention and helps keep you hydrated better than plain water that goes in one end, out the other. Yet, sports drinks are actually low in sodium compared to what you consume in your meals. Many sodium replacers have far less sodium than you may think.

People who sweat heavily might lose about 1,000 to 3,000 mg sodium in an hour of hard exercise. Here are options for replacing these sodium losses:


Replacing electrolytes is most important for athletes who sweat heavily for extended periods in the heat. This includes double sessions of pre-season football, as well as long-distance racing cyclists. Yet, these athletes often are able to ingest lots of sodium in the pre-, during and post-exercise food they consume in order to sustain that level of endurance. For example, the football player who has a high-sodium ham and cheese sandwich with mustard and dill pickles can bypass the Gatorade at lunch.

When you know you will be exercising in hot weather, choose some salted foods (i.e., sprinkle salt on a omelet, pasta, or sweet potato) before you exercise in the heat. Getting a hefty dose of sodium into your body before you even start to exercise has been shown to retain fluid, delay the rate at which you might become dehydrated, and enhance endurance.

The Bottom Line

While sports foods have their time and place, make sure you actually need them before you spend your money on them! Not every athlete needs to pay the price for pre-wrapped convenience.

Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD has a private practice in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875), where she helps both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes create winning food plans. Her best-selling Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, and food guides for marathoners, cyclists and soccer players, as well as teaching materials, are available at For workshops, visit


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date: November 30, 2015

Nancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, an internationally known sports nutritionist and nutrition author, is a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in nutrition for exercise, health and the nutritional management of eating disorders.

avatarNancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, an internationally known sports nutritionist and nutrition author, is a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in nutrition for exercise, health and the nutritional management of eating disorders.

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