Should you fuel up with energy bars and protein bars or not? If so, when is it appropriate? I tackle this frequently asked question today.
Why do you need it?
That’s my answer.
In truth, no energy bar is a good bar.
One of the biggest exercise mistakes that women of all ages make is incorrectly fueling that exercise to get the results that they want.
If you’re trying to avoid belly fat and optimize your weight, an energy bar with a barcode is not the best way to fuel. I’m a fan of real, whole food. Especially if you’re just doing a workout less than 90 minutes long and or you are minutes from real food with no risk of being stranded on a deserted island.
Unless you’re training for long endurance events, miles from home, and need a more convenient way to carry easy-to-digest protein, fat and carbs on your body or bike… real food is best.
If you’re standing in your kitchen, reach for nuts and seeds, or nut butter with half a banana prior to exercise. I use hearty (not cardboard) brown rice cakes with sun butter or avocado spread on it prior to exercise. Better yet is roasted sweet potato slices or chunks with sun butter. At the airport, a bag of raw almonds is better than a Kind bar.
If you are training for endurance events, then it’s a matter of testing your food sensitivities, and avoiding higher fiber options while you’re exercising. So many of the energy bars I used to use I can’t recommend because they contain soy, and or dairy. The good news is there are plenty of gluten-free options available now. The healthy options usually contain dried fruit and nuts. While that’s OK for something low intensity like a long hike, if you’re running the trails, this kind of bar may not be ideal. At the point you’re exercising hard you want easy to digest foods: mostly carbs, with some sugar, protein, and fat.
What you want for weight loss and blood sugar maintenance during a desk-day is not what you want during exercise. If your goals are weight loss, endurance events, may in fact not be your jam. The fuel you need to use will be vastly different unless you’ve taken months to shift your body’s ability to burn fat for fuel and can focus on fat and protein while minimizing carbohydrates. Not everyone wants to do that or can maintain it long term.
You, I hope, would not have a plateful of vegetables and dip or a big salad before going out for a run. The roughage is exactly opposite what you want before vigorous exercise. Gone (for the most part) are the days of “carbohydrate loading” before a race or long training day. Eating high fiber, high roughage foods before key workouts is also not on an athlete’s training schedule. Fiber, fat and roughage are good things for digestion at other times because they keep you full and sated. During exercise you want that stomach clear and your body’s focus on delivering oxygen to working muscles not digesting. A Mexican meal the night before a tough workout isn’t usually a wise plan. Brown rice or sweet potato and some cooked veggies, maybe a small side of greens depending on your stomach with your protein source of preference is going to be much simpler to digest. Butternut squash soup and a serving of protein or even a smoothie with a slightly higher carb content and low fiber might be a good night-before a race meal.
If you’re not doing long endurance activities, skip this part. You’ll be adding calories and additional ingredients you don’t want or need. Real food is all you need for anything less than 2 hours. You don’t want to be over compensating with packaged foods! If I’m asked what would be a good pre-exercise meal or snack heading out the door to the gym, I will always refer to the fact your kitchen is accessible …choose real food. If you’re on the go often, a cooler or insulated bag is flipping smart!
Cleanest Packaged Picks
Bobo’s bars for longer endurance training at higher intensity: long runs, long bike rides. A mountain-climbing friend uses these regularly too.
Lara Bars for light, longer activities: hikes, canoe trips, skiing.
Breeze Bars offers lower in fiber options that accommodate a variety of gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free needs (or desire). (Maple Almond, Nut-free Sunflower)
Bonk Breaker in PB & J is my go-to indulge on a long bike ride. Truly if you’re out there for hours biking or hiking you look forward to your treats. At 260 total calories and 36 grams of carbs this is for a serious racer who needs a lot of energy in a small place. They are not exceptionally clean with some canola oil, and peanut butter in the higher protein options I prefer. Test your toleration. Anyone on a multi-hour adventure should carry something they’ve tested.
UPDATED After the Post:
Jerf Bar I just found these bars and want to share them. They’re clean, real food, minus the ingredients that most people are sensitive to and the sugar content is respectable. My earlier comments all still apply. Eating something that doesn’t come with a wrapper is better. But on a long bike ride, middle of 18 holes, or hiking for hours, this would be my recommendation.
Too much protein is not what you want during the middle of exercise. The higher the intensity the less your stomach will tolerate anything but easy-to-digest carbs. Small amounts of protein in your bar help reduce sugar spike and reduce your muscle breakdown. But you’ve got to test it. If you have too much protein during the middle of a workout your body could rebel. Mine did in the middle of a bike race and I had to pull the
Only if you’ve shifted your body over months to utilize fat better will fat alone sustain you. Walking a golf course for 7-8 hours for instance, I’ve been known to survive on almonds, sunflower seeds, and in a pinch, peanuts. Lots of fat, plenty of protein and very little carb for a very low intensity activity works. If I were running the same 7-10 miles, that wouldn’t work. I’d need to shift to a more simple carb brown rice tortilla with a little nut butter and half a banana – and likely before to prep not during. I might take a few bites of half the banana with some fluid ½ to ¾ of the way done.
Make it Yourself
Biking for hours for five Ironman distance triathlon-training seasons I had ample time to experiment. My favorite fuel by far was real food. I carried gluten-free wheat-free nut-butter and jelly tortillas. The jelly or jam was real fruit. Yes, it had sugar, a flip from the usual need, but during hours of training the muscles need glycogen. Refrigerated the night before (even briefly frozen) on a hot day they’d be perfect mid-way through a long ride.
Make it yours
The best way to determine what works is simulate your race day. Replicate the exact race day timing. Get up at the same time. Ideally, eat 2+ hours before a race. That alone can take some getting used to if you’re someone who doesn’t eat before a workout. [The longer and or more intense you regularly go the less possible this will be if you hope to improve: your body needs fuel to perform.] Drink fluids as you would pre-race. Hot day? You’ll need to increase the fluids and electrolytes the couple days leading up to the event. Then continue to do so that morning before. Top your tank before the race with something easy to digest. Half a banana (short duration) or a half a bar you’ve tried and tested for concentrated energy is usually a good idea.
Your brain may wrestle with the idea. If you’re struggling with “diet” mentality and trying to perform as an athlete, there is likely to be some conversation going on in your head. You have to pick a lane. Are you doing the events or seeking better performance purely for weight maintenance and optimization with a focus other than the scale? Then pay a little less attention to pre-race info.
On the other hand, if you caught the race bug, and you want to improve your times or your comfort level, you’ll want to shift and think of the 80/20 rule for fuel. Eight percent of the time you do what creates the strongest, leanest body. Twenty percent you fuel your exercise pre, during, and post slightly differently. You may need to change to less fiber, less fat, easy emptying of your gut for key training sessions and race day.
I love a focus on a starting line rather than the scale. A starting line is empowering. You have control. You are happier, accomplished, and improving. A scale, on the other hand leaves you without any control. You’re dependent on the measure for happiness. Are you going to give some inanimate object that kind of love? Experiences make life.