There's nothing magic about energy drinks, bars and gels; their main ingredients are carbohydrates and water. They offer a convenient, measured and well-packaged way to stay fueled during a race.
Carbohydrates can be 'simple' (fast-acting sugars such as fructose, lactose and glucose) or 'complex' (slow-acting for long-lasting energy). During your race, you need fast-acting simple carbohydrates.
When choosing products, using what will be offered at the aid stations is convenient, so try those first. Check your event’s website or technical guide to see what is offered—practice often in training to optimise what works well for you and train your gut to digest them.
- Energy Gels - A sweet gel in a convenient packet, typically containing 100 calories and between 20 - 30 grams of carbohydrate; some also contain salts, vitamins and caffeine. Isotonic gels are more watery and easier to consume but contain less carbohydrate per gram. Caffeine gels often taste bitter, but there are proven performance gains to be had; typically, caffeine products should be saved for the last half of the race. Drink water when taking gels to promote the fastest absorption.
- Energy Drinks - Powdered or pre-made drinks containing predominantly water and carbohydrate. Some contain electrolytes (salts), vitamins, caffeine and even protein. On race day, your primary requirements are water and carbohydrates (6-8% is optimal for rapid absorption). You will also need to replenish your electrolytes for long races in hot climates.
- Salt Intake - Some people believe salt intake is important to replace what is lost through sweating. Most sports drinks contain some salt, and if you want more, you can try salt tablets (such as those by Saltstick) to top yourself up.
- Energy Chews - These are chewy sweets or jelly blocks, some containing electrolytes, vitamins and caffeine, but mainly containing carbohydrates. They are often more palatable than energy gels and don’t leave you with such sticky fingers. Clif Shot Bloks or PowerBar PowerGel Shots are good examples; one pack contains six blocks (48g of carbohydrate). Water should be taken with chews.
- Energy Bars - These are dense pre-packaged cereal bars containing mainly carbohydrates. They are useful on race morning or while training and come in a wide variety of flavours with different contents. They can be more difficult to digest during racing, so read the labels and practice during training if you are considering using them during your race or event.
- Real Food - Fueling from processed food is not ideal for some. If you choose to consume real food during training and racing, you will need to experiment and pay attention to the nutritional content. You need to find easily digestible carbohydrate-rich foods that work to provide your energy requirements and are practical for consumption on the move. Real food provides a slower release of calories than processed fuels; you, therefore, need to be on top of your food intake and eat before feeling hungry. Practice in training is essential.
- Recovery Drinks - The main ingredients in a recovery drink are carbohydrates and protein. Some also contain fat, electrolytes and vitamins. Research indicates that the optimal ratio for a post-endurance recovery drink is four parts carbohydrate and one part protein. Interestingly, plain milk contains a similar ratio. These drinks are convenient when you don't have a chance to eat immediately after a challenging workout.
- Recovery Bars - Tasty bars containing carbohydrates, fat and protein. These often taste as good as chocolate bars like Snickers and Mars, so it’s tempting to eat lots. Eating foods like these straight after exercise heightens recovery, although you could get the same effect from a homemade smoothie. Just be careful to balance post-workout consumptions with your training volume.
Taking the time to work out your nutritional requirements for a race can be a time-consuming exercise, but it's totally worthwhile. You invest a lot of time training to be physically ready for your race. Don't waste this hard work and jeopardise your race by being unprepared and unable to fuel your way to success.
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