Sports drinks, energy gels, and energy bars have distinct yet overlapping benefits and uses for triathletes.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
Sports drinks have existed since the late 1960s. Since then, athletes have become increasingly aware of the benefits of consuming a sports drink during prolonged exercise. The first energy bar hit the market in 1986. By the late ‘90s, a majority of endurance athletes who consumed solid food during some workouts and races had replaced their bananas, figs, and guava sandwiches with energy bars. Energy gels came along in 1991. They caught on quickly, and the number of competing products subsequently exploded.
Endurance athletes, including triathletes, now have three distinct forms of energy sources (or “ergogenic aids”) available to them to use in workouts and races: liquids (sports drinks), semisolids (energy gels), and solids (energy bars). Such variety causes a certain amount of confusion. Many triathletes are not sure when and how the three options should be combined, if ever. This article will clear up that uncertainty once and for all!
The three things your body needs nutritionally during exercise are water and electrolyte minerals to minimize dehydration and maintain internal fluid balance and carbohydrate for muscle energy. Sports drinks are the only ergogenic aids that provide all three. Therefore sports drinks are the only type of ergogenic aid that you can rely on exclusively to meet your nutritional needs in workouts and races. However, in some longer workouts and races you may need something more, or something else.
Energy gels are essentially sports drinks without the water. They provide the carbohydrates for energy and sodium and other electrolyte minerals for fluid balance, but they cannot be as effective as sports drinks unless they are consumed with water for hydration.
Sports drinks are generally formulated to provide as much carbohydrate as possible without negatively affecting their absorption rate, because if they were too concentrated they would get “stuck” in the stomach and intestine, causing GI distress. For this reason athletes should not combine the use of sports drinks with the use of energy gels during intense exercise. These combinations are too concentrated and are likely to cause bloating and nausea, especially during running.
Gels (when taken with water) provide the same benefits as sports drinks and should be taken in the same circumstances: during workouts and races lasting an hour or more. But you must choose one option or the other. So when might you want to use gels instead of sports drinks?
Some athletes simply prefer drinking water to sports drinks during exercise. If you are one of these athletes, you need to use gels.
In some circumstances, gels are more convenient than sports drinks. For example, you can easily carry enough gel packets to fuel a three-hour run and stop at water fountains for the water you need instead of being saddled with two or three pounds of sports drink in a hydration belt or fluid bladder.
In races, if you are not a fan of the sports drink offered on the course, you can carry gel packets and just grab water from aid stations along the way.