Exercise longer and more efficiently with energy bars and carbohydrate gels

Credit: Mike Powell/Allsport
Deciding which types of nutrients to consume during endurance road cycling is one of the most important choices you can make before a longer bicycle ride.

For years, our only choice was sports drinks, but now more and more of us are turning to energy bars and carbohydrate gels to help replace calories and stave off fatigue.

What's more, it's been proven that you can ride or run farther and faster by consuming carbohydrates, fat and even protein during long-term exercise.

Energy bars

Energy bars can be divided into three basic types: high-carbohydrate bars with a low-protein and low-fat content; bars with a more balanced mix of carbohydrates, protein and fat; and bars with a high protein content.

Manufacturers who believe that carbohydrates are the major source of energy for endurance exercisers formulate their bars with between 50 percent and 90 percent carbohydrates. These products are often the bars of choice for endurance runners, cyclists and triathletes.

Manufacturers of energy bars with a more balanced proportion of carbohydrates, proteins and fats insist that the higher fat and protein content, as well as the lower proportion of carbohydrates, promotes greater fat-burning during a workout. They say using fats as the primary fuel helps spare the body's limited carbohydrate stores from being depleted before the end of a workout.

That's why some of these bars use the currently popular "40-30-30" ratio: 40 percent of calories from carbohydrates; 30 percent from fat; and 30 percent from protein. Although this combination may not be right for everyone, a growing number of exercise proponents hail it as a nutritional breakthrough.

Protein bars, which list protein as their first ingredient, are often higher in calories (about 250) and size (as much as 3 ounces). Bodybuilders and people looking to put on muscle mass are the typical target audience.

Carbohydrate gels

Neither a liquid nor a bar, carbohydrate gels combine the benefits of both liquid sports drinks and solid energy bars to take sports nutrition a step further. Carbohydrate gels are more concentrated than a liquid and digest more easily than a bar, translating into more efficient energy and better performance. Carbohydrate gels are great for training, competition or any time an individual needs a quick energy boost.

Gels typically contain 70 to 100 calories and 17 to 25 grams of carbohydrates per packet. By contrast, the majority of sports bars provide roughly 200 to 230 calories and 40 to 45 grams of carbohydrates, plus protein, fat and fiber. Most gels, except chocolate-flavored types, contain none of the last three elements. Like most sports bars, all gels include complex carbohydrates and simple sugars, such as fructose or glucose.

Several sports nutritionists say that because there's no fiber, protein or fat, which can slow down metabolism, the carbohydrates in gels are more rapidly assimilated into the bloodstream, delivering a supply of both fast-acting and long-lasting carbohydrate energy. Gel manufacturers recommend taking one packet with water every 30 minutes during exercise.

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