Is the universe shrinking, or are there just a lot more energy bars?
Seriously, when faced with the ever-growing array of bars, I usually just grab whatever's on sale. Energy bars, like most nutritional products geared for athletes, aren't cheap, after all. But that M.O. assumes that all bars are created equal -- and they're not, I learned from Cristina Rivera, R.D., a nutritionist who spoke at the Multisport World 2011 conference last weekend in New York. Here's the lowdown on bars, gels and sports drinks.
Energy bars. They're really meant for people who exercise for one to three hours. Before a workout that's an hour or longer or during an event that lasts more than two hours, you want a bar that is high in carbs and low in fiber and protein (such as Clif or Lara bars). It's energy you need; fiber can cause cramps or require you take an inconvenient bathroom break. After a workout, you want a bar that is higher in protein, which helps with muscle repair and recovery (Kind and Power are good choices). If you exercise for less than an hour or are trying to lose weight, you're better off sticking with food, which is less dense, calorie-wise.
Gels. These are best taken immediately before or during exercise that's longer than an hour. Most contain a mix of glucose and sucrose, which helps ensure that the carbs are delivered quickly. The biggest mistake with gels is that people ingest them alone. They should be taken with six to eight ounces of water -- or you might end up with a stomachache. More and more products contain caffeine, which studies have shown does not dehydrate as much as previously thought, but that has been linked to a lower sense of exertion. For that reason, the optimal time to take a gel with caffeine during an event is at the two-thirds' mark (Though you should practice with it beforehand -- caffeine gives some people the shakes.).
Sports drinks. You don't need a sports drink to re-hydrate if you work out for less than an hour; water will do. One exception is if you're a heavy sweater. To find out if you are, weigh yourself before and after your workout. If you've lost more than two percent of your weight, you're at risk for dehydration, and a sports drink will replace your electrolytes, as well as help you re-hydrate. If you have diabetes, go for a sports drink with protein (such as Accelerate), which slows the release of sugars and helps you avoid a roller coaster high and low.
By Caroline Hwang