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Sports bars and gels: energy foods for active athletes.

It has been a long day. Your athletes have had a light breakfast and an early lunch. At 4 p.m. they will begin several hours of training on the basketball court or in the pool. From past experience, you know that they'll run out of steam after about a half hour.

What can you do to help get them through the workout? Perhaps the easiest and best way is through energy bars. Taken before and during the workout, they will help combat fatigue and fuel the working muscles. Taken after the workout, they will provide a rich source of carbohydrate to refuel the muscles.


Most energy bars are high in carbohydrate and moderate in fat and protein. You may check the label to make sure the bar contains over 80% carbohydrate and less than 10% fat.

Calorie count: four calories per gram of carbohydrate, four calories per gram of protein, and nine calories per gram of fat. The protein content does not have to be much more than 10% of the total.

The energy bars also supply vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

The research shows that athletes who do not take any carbohydrate during exercise will fatigue much sooner and "hit the wall" before the end of the workout or competition.

Athletes who do consume carbohydrate before the exercise may still tire, but they may be able to push the pace longer and harder.

Many athletes crave something solid to eat after several hours into a workout, especially if they haven't eaten over the past four hours. Coaches who believe in long workouts would be wise to have the athletes ingest something solid during the activity - "something" that will not only satisfy their craving for solid food but will supply the carbohydrate needed for energy.

The coach should also make sure to have the athletes consume an adequate amount of fluid during the long exercise period. Warning: An excessive amount of fluid may accentuate the nausea induced by exercise. (Nobody likes to have liquids sloshing around in the stomach for any period of time.)

Whenever large volumes of fluid are being taken, athletes can settle their stomachs by eating foods that contain carbohydrates and small amounts of fat, protein, and fiber.

Remember the following points when prescribing energy bars before, during, or after training or competition:

* Make sure the athlete drinks several ounces of fluid with the energy bar, especially during exercise in which fluids are needed in addition to the energy from the bar.

* Avoid prescribing bars that are high in fat and protein. The primary fuel to use during exercise is carbohydrate.

* Have the athletes eat before they are hungry. If they wait until they are hungry, their blood glucose and muscle glycogen stores may be too low for peak performance.

* Just as with energy drinks, you have to experiment with energy bars before using them in competition. Trying something new on race day can increase the risk of abdominal distress.

* A bar that tastes good at rest does not guarantee that it will be tolerated during exercise or competition.

* Dosage:

Before exercising: The athlete should eat one energy bar (about 200 to 250 kcal) about one hour before exercising, making sure to consume an adequate amount of fluid with it. Remember, while energy bars provide energy, they do not provide fluids - which have a greater effect on performance. During training or competition: 60 to 80 grams of carbohydrates (240 to 320 kcal) per hour is generally considered to be optimal carbohydrate replenishment during hard exercise. The athletes should read the label to make sure they are taking the proper amount of carbohydrates.

After exercising: Eating about 200 kcal of carbohydrate within the next half hour can accelerate the recovery of the energy stores.


A new high-energy concentrated form of carbohydrate gel is being marketed for athletes seeking to enhance their endurance.

The gels are available in palm-size single-serving foil packets. You simply tear off the perforated end and squeeze or suck the 0.75 to 1.2 oz. of gel into your mouth.

Depending upon the brand, the gel has the consistency of a thin syrup or a tasteful pudding.

The gel is perfect for long workouts or between-match periods when athletes need that quick burst of energy. Caution: The athlete must stay well-hydrated - still use an energy drink or just water during long workouts.

If not used properly, the gel's high-carbohydrate content may exacerbate dehydration.

The gel can also be used immediately after exercise to help with the recovery. The ingestion of one or two packets, along with at least 10 oz. of water (or an energy drink), with each packet, can enhance the rate of glycogen resynthesis.

The gels are not designed to replace energy drinks, but to provide that extra shot of pure carbohydrate during training or endurance competition.

As more and more carbohydrate gels and other sports nutritionals come into the market, coaches would do well to experiment with them in training, just as they would with any new food or drink product. They may have the athletes taste several of the products and choose the one that works best for them.

Carbohydrate gels offer 70-100 calories and 17-25 grams of carbohydrate per packet. By contrast, most sports bars provide roughly 210 to 230 calories and 40 to 45 grams of carbohydrate, plus protein, fat, and fiber. Gels contain none of the last three elements - except for chocolate-flavored gels and one product that contains a few amino acids.

Like most sports bars, all gels include long-chain carbohydrate or glucose polymers (maltodextrin) and simple sugars (fructose or dextrose).

Several sports nutrinionists believe that since the gels have no fiber and no protein and fat to interfere in metabolism, the carbohydrate in the gel is easily assimilated into the bloodstream and delivers a supply of both fast-acting and long-lasting carbohydrate energy.

Based on my work with elite cyclists and triathletes, these carbohydrate gels, when consumed at regular intervals, perform as advertised in helping eliminate hypoglycemia and the depletion of muscle glycogen.

Every company recommends taking one packet, chased by water, every 30 minutes.

All gels contain small amounts of the electrolytes, such as potassium and sodium, that are typically lost through perspiration. Some also contain small amounts of calcium, beta carotene, and vitamins C and E.


* Since dehydration presents a far greater problem than does the possibility of hypoglycemia or the depletion of muscle and liver glycogen, sports gels should be used only after the athletes are well-hydrated.

* Athletes who do not tolerate the taste or mouth-feel of the product or who experience gastrointestinal distress or feelings of weakness and lethargy (symptoms of hypoglycemia) are not good candidates for the use of gels in exercise situations.

* After exercising, athletes can ingest one or two packets along with at least 10 oz. of water or a sports drink (with each packet) to enhance their rate of glycogen resynthesis.
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Author:Burke, Edmund R.
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Date:Aug 1, 1997
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