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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.
In cool-weather workouts and long races in which your sweat rate is relatively low but you’re still burning lots of carbs, gels can be preferable to sports drinks. In such cases you will take the gels with somewhat less water than you would take in warmer weather. This will prevent you from having to urinate frequently, which is what will happen if you consume too much fluid while sweating lightly.
Like energy gels, energy bars provide concentrated carbohydrate energy without providing fluid. The major difference between energy gels and energy bars is that the latter do a better job of satisfying hunger. Exercise suppresses hunger by affecting the release of hormones that control appetite. Consequently, if you start a workout or race with an empty stomach, you may forget about your hunger until after you’re done. But exercise doesn’t kill hunger completely. During very prolonged exercise, hunger can become just as intense as it does at rest. Triathletes routinely experience a rumbling stomach on the bike during long workouts and races.
Many athletes assume that hunger is an indicator of increased or unmet energy needs. This is not the case. The body operates in a state of ever-increasing energy deficit throughout exercise, whether you’re hungry or not. This means two things: 1) you need to take in calories during exercise regardless of hunger and 2) you don’t need to make any special effort to quell hunger during exercise.
Hunger can become and unpleasant distraction, however. And when that’s the case you should address it. While a sports drink and/or energy gels will provide all the energy your muscles can use, they won’t do much for your hunger. To stop the rumbling you’ll need to switch to solid food. It’s important to choose foods that are easily digested and metabolized, though. Your best options are bars, chews and similar products that are formulated specifically for use during exercise. These products are high in carbs for quick muscle energy and low in fiber, fat, and protein for easy absorption.
To minimize the risk of GI distress, switch from a sports drink or gels plus water to just water 15 minutes before you consume solid food such as an energy bar during exercise. Wash the bar down with water and don’t resume using a sports drink or gels for at least another 15 minutes afterward. You’ll need to experiment a bit to determine exactly what your stomach can tolerate.
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. Find out more at mattfizgerald.org.