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The Athlete's Kitchen:
Energy Bars, Gels & Electrolyte Replacements:
Are They Essential Sports Foods?

Copyright: Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD | July 2015

“I don’t like gels, so I only drink water on my long runs — but how can I keep myself from bonking at mile 18?”

“I’m training for an Ironman triathlon. Which products are best to replace the electrolytes I lose in sweat?”

“Do PowerBars have special performance-enhancing ingredients?”

If you are among the many endurance athletes who has no idea which engineered sports foods are the best choices to fuel your long runs or rides, welcome to the club! Advertisements have led many active people—not just marathoners and triathletes, but anyone who breaks a sweat—to believe that energy bars, gels, and electrolyte replacers (among other commercial sports foods) are a necessary part of a sports diet. While there is a time and a place for pre-packaged sports foods, many runners needlessly spend a lot of money misusing them. The purpose of this article is to help you become an informed consumer.

Pre-exercise energy bars  

While fueling with a pre-run “high performance” energy bar is one way to energize your workout, you could less expensively consume 250 calories of Fig Newtons or a granola bar. All will offer the “magical” energy source that muscles need for a high-energy workout: carbohydrate!

The best pre-run snacks are foods that digest easily and do not talk back to you. Standard supermarket foods can do that as well as engineered products. Experiment to determine which foods settle best in your body during exercise.

Pre-exercise Snack



Cost/100 calories

PowerBar Performance Energy Bar




Clif Bar




NatureValley Granola Bar (1 packet)




Fig Newtons (1 pkt)





While some runners love the convenience of gels (such as Gu, Clif Shots) during training sessions that last longer then 90 minutes, others dislike their consistency or the way they might create digestive issues. Gels generally offer 100 calories from some form of sugar. If your body is not accustomed to digesting that particular type of sugar, you might end up with undesired pit stops. Always experiment with new products such as gels during long training sessions!!!

Some popular alternatives to the 100 calories of carbohydrate (sugar) in the gel include gummy candies (Swedish fish, gummy bears), twizzlers, gumdrops, peppermint patties, marshmallows, whoppers, M&Ms, maple sugar candy, and/or swigs of honey or maple syrup. The trick is to figure out how to carry the fuel (and how to keep it from melting in the heat). During long runs, you want to target 200 to 300 calories per hour (after the first hour, which gets fueled with your pre-run snack). The amount your body needs depends on your weight and exercise intensity. Read the label’s Nutrition Facts to determine the correct portion to bring with you.


You can find an abundant amount of electrolytes (electrically charged particles, most commonly known as sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium) in “real foods” – including fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, and dairy foods. These real foods are generally far less expensive electrolyte replacers.

Sodium enhances fluid retention and helps keep you hydrated better than plain water that goes in one end, out the other. Yet, sports drinks are actually low in sodium compared to what you consume in your meals. Many sodium replacers have far less sodium than you may think.

Runners who sweat heavily might lose about 1,000 to 3,000 mg sodium in an hour of hard exercise. Here are options for replacing these sodium losses:

Commercial Sports Food


Salty food


Endurolytes, 1 capsule

40 mg

Dill pickle spear

350 mg

PowerBar Electrolytes


Beef Jerky, 1 oz


Gatorade, 8 oz


Salt, 1⁄4 tsp


Gatoraade Endurance, 8 oz


Bouillon cube, Herb-ox


Replacing electrolytes is most important for runners who sweat heavily for extended periods in the heat. This includes double sessions of triathlon training, as well as summer running camps with repeated bouts of exercise in the heat. Yet, these athletes often are able to ingest lots of sodium in the pre-, during and post-exercise food they consume in order to sustain that level of endurance. For example, the triathlete who has a high-sodium ham and cheese sandwich with mustard and dill pickles can bypass the Gatorade at lunch.

When you know you will be exercising in hot weather, choose some salted foods (i.e., sprinkle salt on a omelet, pasta, or sweet potato) before you exercise in the heat. Getting a hefty dose of sodium into your body before you even start to run has been shown to retain fluid, delay the rate at which you might become dehydrated, and enhance endurance.

The bottom line

While sports foods have their time and place, make sure you actually need them before you spend your money on them! Not every runner needs to pay the price for pre-wrapped convenience.

Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD has a private practice in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875), where she helps both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes create winning food plans. Her best-selling Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, and food guides for marathoners, cyclists and soccer players, as well as teaching materials, are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. For workshops, visit NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.

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