Photo at right: There are many choices for nutrition supplements or energy on the go. Photo by Chach Photography
Open any gym bag and you will probably find some sort of nutrition product, like a bar, a gel or a drink, in a bright label shouting that it is THE! BEST! choice to fuel your workout. But is it even necessary? Whether or not one of these snacks is beneficial for you depends on the intensity of your workout. Your body uses two primary sources of fuel when exercising: fat and carbohydrate.
Generally, the harder you work, the greater the percentage of your fuel will come from carbohydrates. The problem with carbohydrates, however, is that we can only store a limited amount in our muscles, about 90 minutes to two hours worth, even after “carbo-loading.”
Therefore, re-fueling with carbohydrates during exercise really only becomes important after 90 minutes.
Gels are meant for the serious endurance athlete and are usually only needed during races or long training days. Our brains only run on the glucose stored in the blood. However, the glycogen we ingest from gels doesn’t always make its way to the working muscles. As your muscles absorb more blood glucose, the brain gets less and starts to get hazy.
Gels can clear your mind and sharpen your focus. You want to begin taking gels relatively early in your workout so you have a better chance of processing the sugars without any stomach issues. Most suggest taking your first gel somewhere between 45 – 60 minutes, but everyone reacts to them differently. Be sure to wait about 45 – 60 minutes between gels before taking another one and be sure to take them with water.
Verdict: Serious endurance athletes only
While hydrating alone will do little to boost your energy, staying properly hydrated ensures your body runs at its best, especially during longer workouts. Sports drinks can combine hydration and carbohydrates to increase energy levels without the complications of digesting a meal.
The carbohydrates found in sweetened sports drinks provide energy to help delay fatigue. Lab tests have shown that 6 percent carbohydrate, or 14 grams of carbohydrate per 8 ounces of water, is the optimal percentage of carbs for speeding fluid and energy back into the body.
During exercise, start drinking early and at regular intervals, in order to take in fluids at the rate you’re losing them due to sweat.
Verdict: Less than 90 minutes, stick to plain old H20. Anything longer, carbohydrates are helpful.
Sports drinks and energy drinks are not the same. There is clear evidence caffeine is a non-harmful stimulant and can provide a boost in performance, which can include improved endurance, stamina, and reaction time, but for the weekend warrior, they are not necessary.
Many big-name energy drink brands pump in 100 or more calories of carbohydrates and hundreds of milligrams of sodium along with caffeine.
Sugar-free energy drinks, however, can give you the jolt without the carbs and calories.
Verdict: If the caffeine helps, go for sugar-free varieties or else you’re just drinking soda.
Sports bars are less specific. While they can be used as a small source of energy before or after a workout, they are usually so processed and full of excess sugars that they become little more than a candy bar. You can use them as a snack, a meal replacement or as fuel in the middle of a workout. However, excessive nutrients mean excessive calories, around 200 –300 in a typical bar, and not many need those calories.
Bars do well in a pinch, but you are better off getting your calories and nutrients from whole food sources.
Verdict: If you need something quick to eat, go for it, but don’t eat extra calories just because you think you need to.
Kelly Turner is a professional fitness writer from Seattle. Her no-nonsense, practical advice has been featured on DietsInReview.com, FitnessMagazine.com, Yahoo! Shine, and she has a regular fitness column in The Seattle Times. Follow her on Twitter @KellyTurnerFit.