Energy bars, drinks and gels
The market is saturated with highly priced sports drinks and bars but, when it comes down to it, there really are only a few that meet the needs of triathletes. I'm carefully going to sidestep the issues of supplements as this will form part of a piece written by someone far more expert than me -- this is just about basic nutrition.
In order to compete effectively we need to be both fuelled and watered. Our fuel comes from two primary sources; carbohydrates and fats. Your body can only hold enough carbohydrate fuel (in the form of glycogen) to keep you going for about 90 minutes but even the leanest athlete has enough fat stored to run several back-to-back marathons. The lesson to be learned here is two-fold:
- for longer events you need to take on extra carbohydrate during the event
- you should train your body to use fat as fuel
In basic terms we get 4kcalories per gram of carbohydrate (or protein) but we can get 7kcal from alcohol and a whopping 9kcal from fat. It would seem that we would be better off eating a high-fat diet if we get more energy from it but the snag is that it is harder to burn off the fat because the body prefers to burn carbohydrates. There are many variations on the way that athletes should balance up their diets but the concensus seems to be 50-60% should be carbohydrate, 25-35% should be fats and 10-15% proteins. Oh, and despite the fact that alcohol seems a good energy source do remember that it has other, less beneficial effects!
Protein is a very necessary part of our overall diet but can be ignored so far as getting energy out of it -- you don't start to break down proteins until everything else has gone and if you're that far into energy-debt you're probably dead anyway!
It also matters what type of carbohydrate and fat you consume. In the most basic terms you should be looking for complex carbohydrates in their natural forms; pasta, potatoes, rice, bread, cereals, fruit, etc and not as processed sugars. Similarly, for fats you should be looking for vegetable oils rather than animal fats; unsaturated rather than saturated.
You also need water -- lots of it! Ideally you should be taking in a couple of litres of fluid a day and then supplementing this during exercise. As a rough rule of thumb you can expect to drink a litre an hour on the bike in normal conditions so if you get back off the bike and there's still water left in your bottle you are probably dehydrated before you start the run!
A convenient way of packing in the carbohydrates and the fluids is to use one or other of the carbohydrate powders that you mix with water. Rather than stuffing the face with bowls and bowls of pasta (and that nice, fat-laden cheese or meat sauce) you can drink a couple of litres of the powder mix and get the same benefit. However, a word of warning to anyone who has not used this type of dietary supplementation before.
Do not, under any circumstances, try one of these products out for the first time in a race! Use them as part of a training regime for several weeks and make sure that your system doesn't react badly to large concentrations of various simple and complex carbohydrates being dumped into it. The number of people that I know (myself included) who snarfed an energy bar immediately before an event and didn't drink is legion. The results are generally not pretty and your performance will probably be below par as you are basically shifting blood into the gut to handle the food and, because you didn't drink, getting dehydrated into the bargain! All the bars have instructions -- read them!
There are three categories of product: bars, drinks and gels.
The original, the one that's pretty much synonymous with triathlon, has to be the PowerBar. The standard 65g bar comes in a whole range of flavours, some nice and others very artificial. I find them great before and after but often too hard and chewy to eat during. Water, and quite a lot of it, is a must with these. Powerbar maintain an excellent website that has some very good basic information on nutrition -- well worth a visit.
High Five, my personal favourite, is a 50g bar (it used to be bigger at 80g), and comes in Banana, Citrus and Wild Berry. Softer in texture than the PowerBar and easier to chew on the move, it still needs a generous slug of liquid to wash it down. High Five have also introduced two new ranges: a chocolate covered energy bar that's got a bit more bite and chew and a protein bar. The samples tasted nice and they seem to be going fast!
Maxim bars are twin packs weighing in at 55g. The uncoated fruit/ceral bars are very sticky while the chocolate or yoghurt coated ones are impossible to deal with while in motion. Excellent as a post-race replenisher and the chocolate or yoghurt coating gives that little extra something.
SIS GO bars are bigger but open textured due to the puffed rice. Weighing in at 65g they make a decent mouthful but I find they need even more water than a PowerBar to wash down. I use these a lot when I'm crewing or marshalling at an event as they are more interesting to eat than the homogenised PowerBar or High Five that I'd use in a race. Of the three flavours the Apple/Blackberry is still my favourite followed by the new Mango -- don't like the Chocolate one at all...
Boots (70g) is a new energy bar available in both Apricot and the rather sickly Toffee. I think they are probably made by Maxim, there's a definite similarity, but the Boots ones are softer in texture and seem much sweeter. Sadly no longer available are Clif Bars which more resembles a mis-shapen but very tasty soft muesli biscuit in a pouch (lots of really yummy flavours).
Although it's sometimes classed as an energy bar the Met-Rx products seem to be more of a meal-replacement product. Highly touted by many of the top triathletes (but then they probably don't pay for them!) they have a higher percentage of fat and protein than most of the rest. Taking this even further is the PR* Ironman bar which follows the 40/30/30 concept and packs a whacking 8g of fat into its 56.8g. They describe it as a 'nutrition bar' and although highly touted by some very respected athletes I can find no real scientific data that supports the 40/30/30 diet. I'd treat these as a meal replacement rather than a bar to pack in on the bike or run.
Let's divide the drinks into two categories;
- carbohydrate powders you mix with water and can consume before, during and after training or racing.
- pre-mixed drinks designed for post-exercise energy replacement
At the risk of being highly controversial I'm going to say that the latter are often highly priced and I'd rather have a few glasses of water with an energy bar than one of these fizzy, sugar-rich concoctions.
Probably the original powder mix was Leppin Sport. It originally made its name in running circles and, as far as I can tell, is identical to the Maxim, High Five and SIS PSP products that triathletes are more familiar with. I know that all three major brands add different 'extras' to their mixes but the basic carbohydrate powder is the same. Of them all I prefer the High Five Citrus and use it throughout the year in both training and racing. Some of the flavours I find "repeat" on me which is not something that I really like but I've never had any stomach problems with either Leppin, Maxim or High Five. The original SIS PSP-22 powders were a pig to mix and I never really got on with the flavours but their Rego post-race recovery (protein and carb) drink is very good, but also suffers from the mixing problem -- pre-mix it the night before in a blender for top results.
Classic examples here are Gatorade, Isostar (also available as a powder), Lucozade Sport, SiS (hard to get) and Boots's Isotonic. The idea is that the formulation is supposed to act faster but, to be honest, I've had more upset stomachs with Gatorade and Isostar than with anything else! I'd rather eat an energy bar and wash it down with water -- your body needs complex carbs and water, not some refined, sugar-rich product.
In the beginning, the only gel that was widely available in the UK was the original Leppin Squeezy. These sachets have recently been re-formulated and now come is a range of flavours. On a purely personal note, now we have alternatives like PowerGel and Gu, I would say that the Leppin gel is too runny (nor a non-isotonic gel) and the packaging is very poor in comparison. But, it is a widely available product and it certainly does the job.
PowerBar have a range of gels in one-shot foil pouches, it's quite thick and creamy in consistency and there's a good range of flavours. Now that, as with all the PowerBar product, they are made in Europe there's no problem with pack dates that we used to get in the old days. Definitely a superior product but some find that they can "repeat" a bit at times.
High Five and Maxim both have regular gel products. The High Five version also comes as a powder but with this mixing is critical, you can vary between Gu and SiS consistency very easily but at least you can tailor it to your needs this way rather than having to go with what's in the pre-pack. This makes it ideal as a gel tank on long distance races where you can save a lot of cash over buying the pouches - although you will be stuck with one flavour...
Maxim gels come in a large foil pouch - rather like a mini Lucozade Sport or Isostar pack. You're getting twice the volume here and the pack is re-sealable, again good for the longer distances.
SIS have an isotonic gel that doesn't require water. The pouches are large and the consistency is pretty "sloppy" so it's a BIG mouthful or you'll waste half the pack but they do seem effective. The flavours are orange, tropical and blackcurrant.
Frequent travellers to the US are generally found returning with quantities of other gels stuffed into their bags. Clif Bars have a gel product called Clif Shot and there is the outstanding Gu which we prefer over PowerGel. However, be warned that the Chocolate Gu is probably not one you want to try in the heat of an event -- it's pretty cakky!
One warning is that some of the gels have a high caffeine content. While this can perk you up, the coffee flavour Clif Shot and the Tangerine PowerGel are really strong, they can actually dehydrate you as caffeine is a diuretic. The Green Apple PowerGel also has caffeine. Remember to put the fluids in as well as the carbs!