Beginners Running Tips

Sports Nutrition: The Do’s and Don’ts of Energy Bars, Gels, and Sports Drinks

Seemingly everywhere we look, new products are being advertised to athletes, each with the promise of improving performance, supplying greater amounts of energy, and reducing recovery time.  However, not every product is created equally, or is right for every athlete.  As a beginning or veteran runner, which products are right for you, and which should you avoid? 

Energy Bars
Perhaps the most ubiquitous item in a runner’s arsenal is the energy bar.  The sports nutrition industry is booming, with a number of bar varieties, flavors, shapes, sizes, and ingredients available.  These bars range from 200 – 400 calories, and are meant to be consumed before or during exercise.  Typically high in simple carbohydrates in order to provide quick bursts of energy, ingredients such as simple sugars, syrups, and caffeine are the norm.  For the beginning runner, energy bars are generally not necessary since they often provide more calories than are being burned.  Instead, beginners should opt for whole food sources of energy such as apples, bananas, or whole grain bread. 

Protein Bars
Protein bars, which typically contain 10 – 20 g of protein, are mean to be consumed post-exercise to repair damaged muscles.  Most often geared towards athletes such as weight lifters, protein bars are commonly consumed by athletes wishing to add bulk to their frames.  Protein sources include soy, whey, or pea proteins, each of which may be problematic for people with certain food allergies.  Like energy bars, protein bars also contain excess sugar and carbohydrates, which is not necessary for runners completing runs shorter than 12 – 16k. 

Alternative Bars
A number of companies are promoting bars deemed “alternative” to traditional energy or protein bars.  These bars contain fewer ingredients, are lower in calories, and are from whole food sources, such as dates, nuts, and fruit, without added ingredients like cane syrup or brown rice syrup.  Alternative bars provide protein, carbohydrates, and fiber, and are highly recommended for beginners who seek a quick and easy snack before or after working out. 

Energy Gels and Chews
When walking into a local running store, one may be overwhelmed by the multitude of prepackaged gels, gummies, and jelly beans available.  These items, found in every flavor, are necessary for athletes exercising for 90 minutes or longer.  Containing a number of simple sugars such as maltodextrin, dextrose, and sucrose, as well as caffeine, gels, chews, and beans are meant to quickly replenish glycogen stores in spent muscles to fuel sustained efforts.  These items are not necessary for beginning runners. 

Electrolyte Replacement Drinks
When an athlete sweats, he or she loses minerals such as potassium and sodium, both of which are necessary for everyday functions, including cardiac and neurological processes.  Every runner can benefit from replacing  lost electrolytes during and after exercise.  However, beginning runners should look for products that are low in unnecessary ingredients, such as added sugars.  A multitude of hydration solutions are available in many forms, such as powders and effervescent tablets, that can replenish lost electrolytes without unnecessary calories. 

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