Perusing the shelves of sports nutrition stores is a bit like walking into a candy shop for the active set with one crucial difference: Instead of gumdrops and jawbreakers, these brightly colored packets and pouches contain combinations of nutrients designed to preserve energy, improve stamina, and support overall performance. The goodies are also available in a variety of formats, flavors, and textures ensuring accessibility and usability for pre- and post-workout benefits.
Before loading up on bars, gels, and drink mixes, take time to consider your activity and the length of time you will be out on the road or on the court and be prepared to experiment until you find the best product for your body. It’s best not to wait until the day before a race to try a product since you won’t know how your body will react.
“Some people make the mistake of literally picking up their race packet and asking what kind of nutrition they need for a race,” says Tonya Green, nutrition expert at Luke’s Locker. “The last thing you should be doing is trying something new on race day.”
Once you find a plan that works, watch out for the contradictory risks of waiting too long to consume and bonking, or relying on supplements over real food. “They are a nice tool to have but you can't just only depend on these and expect your run to be miraculous," explains Green, adding that whenever possible you should try to eat a pre-run meal composed of ¾ carbs and ¼ protein; after the workout look for ¾ protein and ¼ carbs. "It always really comes back down to having a nice balanced meal at some point, but it's nice to have something on hand," says Green.
Before consuming, take time to read the user instructions on the packaging to ensure you are familiar with serving sizes and always remember to wash edibles down with plenty of fresh water to help the ingredients get to their intended destinations. If you have any concerns about ingredients, discuss with your doctor or dietitian. Ready to jump in? Read on for a primer on the basics of enhancement options available online and at sports retailers across town.
A thick, gooey, gel-like substance that is squeezed directly into the mouth from single-serve plastic pouches available in a vast variety of flavors such as chocolate, strawberry banana, peanut butter, acai pomegranate, and lemonade.
They are great because: Gels are intended to offer a quick source of carbohydrates, electrolytes, potassium, sodium, and sometimes caffeine directly into your bloodstream and (hopefully) stave off the dreaded bonk. "When you run, you don't digest food the same and [gels are] easier to pack and use,” says Green. “They hit your bloodstream faster." For some athletes, the maltodextrin commonly found in gels can cause GI distress, but brands like Huma offer a “whole foods” alternative with 100% fruit and chia seeds to mitigate that risk.
Try: GU, Honey Stinger, Huma, and Hammer
A popular and convenient alternative to gels for people who don’t like the consistency of the above but still want similar benefits. They resemble fruit snacks and come in various shapes including cubes, beans, sharks, stars, fruits.
They are great because: Like gels, chews are easy to bring along on runs and other workouts. Unlike gels, they are conveniently packaged for popping into one’s mouth with a single hand whereas gels can be more cumbersome and require two hands to roll up the pouch as contents are expelled. It takes a little longer and can be a nuisance for those who want a streamlined process.
Solid bars composed of carbs, protein, and fats bound with syrups for quick-access energy. Ingredients often include fruit, nuts, chocolate, and oats.
They are great because: Unlike gels and chews, which are used during a workout, energy bars offer a more complete contribution to workout prep or recovery. While Green cautions against using a bar for meal replacement, she says they are a great resource to ensure protein is consumed soon after a workout. They can also serve as a quick snack an hour or so before activity, though she recommends whole, real food whenever possible.
Powders and mixes come in a variety of flavors and offer a drinkable option for protein. Options include those taken before and after a workout depending on preferences and nutrition needs.
They are great because: Shakes offer post-workout recovery and another way to consume essential protein. Simply mix with water and enjoy instant nourishment; purchase large containers to keep at home or portable packs for pouring directly into bottles when on the go. One downside to traditional shakes is their simple sugar contents that are broken down and consumed absorbed by the bodily quickly, forcing frequent refueling and resulting in energy spikes. UCAN offers a unique answer for those seeking to avoid the sugar spikes either for energy or health reasons. It was developed by a family seeking help for their diabetic son and utilizes an ingredient called superstarch, which offers a complex carbohydrate that breaks down slowly for more efficient energy.
Similar to shakes, these are powders that are mixed into water for accessible nutrition during a race, but they do not generally contain protein. Instead, they replenish electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and carbohydrates expelled during workouts; some brands contain additional elements like calcium and magnesium. If powders are too messy, look for tablet forms that simply be dropped into a water bottle to dissolve on their own.
They are great because: When we sweat we lose critical electrolytes and this increases even more during the hot, humid weather notorious in our neck of Texas. Failing to replace these elements can result in fatigue, cramps, and hitting “the wall,” runner-speak for losing all energy and having to stop—sometimes even ending a run or race completely—which is the last thing you want to happen. Be sure to consume electrolytes before you start to feel bad so that they have time to absorb into the body and keep you moving smoothly.
Jerky: For those seeking non-liquid replenishment, jerky offers a great post-workout sodium and protein alternative in a real-food package. Look for organic and hormone-free meat like those from Sweetwood Cattle Co. and Texas’ own 44 Farms.
BeetElite Performance Shot: Juicing veggies is a great way to bring additional nutrition into your routine but when time and logistics are a factor look to this packet, which contains the nitric oxide equivalent of six beets. "Beets are really good for your cardiovascular system,” says Green, who cautions that you need to build up in order to see the benefit. “[I’m a] big believer in beets.” Consume this product 30 minutes before your workout for optimum value. Packets cost about $3 for one serving so Green suggests saving them for the week before a race and utilizing fresh produce instead whenever possible to help make them more economical.
Salt Tablets: For heavy sweaters or particularly long workouts in hot weather, salt tablets are a good way to replenish lost sodium and stave off cramping and fatigue, two unpleasant experiences that occur when sodium stores are too low. However, most people do not need to supplement with salt if they are already taking a gel or electrolyte during their workout, since those will contain enough for a few hours of action. This is another case where washing with lots of water is very, very important, cautions Green, as is not overdoing it. Taking more than necessary will negate the benefits. “[It’s] always better to use a little less and then figure out how much you need as you go,” she advises.