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home > training > training tips > the skinny on sports bars and gels

The Skinny on Sports Bars and Gels
Sports bars and gels make for an ideal energy boost on the run. Our survey of sports bars and gels will help you pick the right one for you.

The Skinny on Sports Bars and Gels

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By Josh Clark
Posted Sunday, 19 October, 1997

Only a decade ago, sports bars were the province of a handful of backpacking specialty shops and the occasional running store. With the arrival of the health boom in the early nineties, however, they are now universally available, even at many 24-hour convenience stores (in case you have a late-night carbo crisis). Along with their cousin the sports gel, sports bars work. Most deliver a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate snack that can be easily tucked into a waistband for a snack on the run or in a desk drawer for a mid-day pick-me-up. Designed for easy digestion, they give you a needed energy boost without sticking to your stomach.

The catch to sports bars and gels is that they tend to be an acquired taste. With flavors ranging from banana to peanut butter to berry to espresso, it is true that today's sports bars are much, much tastier than the first pioneers. All the same, first reactions tend to be that they are mealy, gooey and sometimes too sweet. Gels in particular take some getting used to. Strangely putty-like, you eat them from their packets through an odd combination of chewing and slurping. But they grow on you, and the energy rewards of both bars and gels make the transition worthwhile.

With so many products on the market, however, just buying a sports bar can be a confusing experience. Which is the best for your needs? The answer (along with a little experimentation to find the one you think is tastiest) is on the back of the wrapper. The nutrition label should give you all the information you need. Ideally, you want a sports bar that gives you roughly the same proportion of carbohydrates, fat and protein as your ideal healthy diet. That means seeking out a bar with at least 65 percent carbohydrates and no more than 20 percent fat.

In general, most sports bars will have between 200 and 300 calories. Gel packets usually contain between 75 and 100 calories, often with higher percentages of carbohydrates than bars. Gels often throw in some caffeine and branched-chain amino acids to give you some extra pep. Bars, on the other hand, offer up more extra nutrients in the form of vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Keep in mind that not all sports bars and gels are created equal. Watch out particularly for the ones that are high in fat. While fat does in fact provide you with energy, it is not nearly as efficient a fuel as carbohydrates for vigorous activity.

To help you make your selection, here are some details on a number of sports bars on the market, listed in alphabetical order:

Bar Calories Carbos % Fat % Protein %
ATP Tour 160 74 21 5
Balance 180 36 33 31
Bear Valley 420 56 29 17
BTU Stroller 252 73 11 16
Carbo-Crunch 180 60 19 20
Clif Bar 250 83 7 8
Edgebar 240 77 8 15
Exceed 280 76 6 17
Gatorbar 220 89 8 5
PowerBar 225 75 8 18
PR Bar 180 39 30 31
Tiger Sport 230 70 14 16
Torque Bar 211 87 2 11
Ultra Fuel 490 81 6 13
VO2 Max 230 78 12 12

As to which is better, gels or bars, there is really not a huge difference. Gels typically come packed with fewer calories but also have a higher concentration of carbohydrates. Provided that you take your gel or sports bar with fluids, the carbos in both should be absorbed at roughly the same rate, so you probably don't get an appreciably faster energy boost from either. And you really should take both with fluids. Not only will it aid digestion, but 8 to 12 ounces of water will also help you swallow a relatively dry sports bar in the middle of a race.

Keep in mind that if you are planning to start using bars and gels, you should experiment with them before, during and after training runs to see how they sit with you. Do not eat them for the first time before, or especially during, a race, or you may risk an upset stomach.



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