How to Choose the Right Energy Foods

In 2002, Karen Main, a health promotion manager in Portland, Ore., prepared to tackle her first marathon. She packed an ill-fitting fuel belt with Skittles and small packets of dried cranberries and nuts that she had purposefully saved from packaged salad mixes. Looking back, she acknowledges that she didn't fuel herself adequately. "I didn't eat enough, and I figured it out too late," says Main, who laughs while describing how she struggled to open the food packets during the race. Seven years later, Main ran her second marathon to celebrate turning 40. The second time around she got it right, opting for runner-friendly energy chews dispensed from a handy tube. "I never got hungry," she says, "and the blocks were easy to carry and eat." The myriad sport-specific fueling options available to runners make it much easier to refuel while on the move. You're not alone; however, if the seemingly unlimited explosion of new performance-enhancing sports drinks and energy foods has left you confused about what to choose and when best to consume it. Use the following guidelines to select the optimal energy food for your next race.

SPORTS DRINKS

Sports drinks are designed to maximize fluid absorption and enhance performance by delivering readily absorbable carbohydrate and electrolytes, the most crucial being sodium. The better-formulated (and tasting) ones intended for use during exercise usually contain both simple carbs (sucrose, fructose and glucose) and complex carbs (glucose polymers, maltodextrin). Choose a sports drink instead of plain water when running 60 minutes or longer at a moderate intensity.

PROS: Multiple flavors and brands to choose from; readily usable liquid carbohydrates are absorbed more rapidly than solid food; sodium enhances the drive to drink and facilitates the absorption of carbohydrate.

CONS: Unnecessary added ingredients can contribute to digestion woes; you're hostage to the sports drink provided at aid stations unless you carry your own; unlikely to be enough to meet energy needs in marathons and ultras.

ENERGY GELS, CHEWS AND BLOCKS

These sports foods provide fast-acting, easy-to-digest carbohydrate--exactly what hard-working muscles and the brain require to perform while running fast or long.

PROS: Easy to chew and digest; many varieties also provide sodium and small amounts of caffeine, another performance booster during prolonged exercise.

CONS: Need to be taken with recommended amount of water (6 to 8 ounces); semi-solid chews and blocks may boost blood sugar levels more slowly than gels; toting enough with you requires wearing a carrier of some sort.

LIQUID FOOD SUPPLEMENTS

In addition to carbohydrate, these beverages provide varying amounts of protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, electrolytes and other lesser-proven ingredients, such as herbs and metabolites.

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