Energy Food and Drinks: How to Choose
Runners, hikers, cyclists and other outdoor athletes regularly need an energy infusion for peak performance. Fortunately, there are many quick, easy energy food and drink options to fuel your ambitions.
The Benefits of Energy Food and Drinks
What do these products offer that traditional foods cannot?
- Easy portability: Bananas, though great energy boosters, quickly get beat up when transported in your pack.
- Digestibility: Energy foods tend to be gentle on the stomach so body-jostling activities won’t inhibit your digestion.
- Long shelf life: No refrigeration or special precautions are needed.
- Convenience: Get what you need (concentrated, specialized nutrients) in a convenient packet, when and where you need it.
Before, During and After Workout
Energy foods are engineered to enhance each stage of a workout or outdoor excursion—before, during and after (the recovery phase). This lets you fine-tune your nutrition intake. To help you shop, the product page for each performance food item offered at REI.com includes a “best consumed” designation (found under the Specs tab). Your choices:
- Before workout: These foods or beverages are formulated to provide an elevated, consistent energy level over an extended period of time. They typically include a balanced mix of complex carbohydrates, proteins and fiber. Some are suitable for eating minutes before activity begins, though a longer lead time (1 to 2 hours) is often recommended.
- During workout: These are designed for easy digestion and absorption into your bloodstream. The goal is to provide sustained energy through a gradual rise (not a spike) in energy followed by a similarly gradual decline. Chews, gels and beverages are favorites due to their simplicity.
- After workout (recovery): These are fortified with proteins, amino acids and other muscle-restoring elements to help hasten cell repair in your body.
Note: These are general designations. Many products can serve more than one of these functions.
Energy Food Options
These are best for endurance activities (generally, any moderately intense aerobic endeavor lasting at least 90 minutes). In most cases, they are recommended for before-workout and recovery-phase use.
Bars are commonly high in carbohydrates, low in protein and fat—a good combination to consume just before starting an extended activity (or during a long rest break). Bars with slightly higher fat and protein content are good to eat 1 hour or more before a workout or any time after it. The high-grade carbs in bars provide an endurance boost during a workout; afterwards, they help replenish glycogen (energy reserves) in muscles.
Some energy bars offer significant protein, a nutrient that is especially needed by endurance athletes. Many bars are engineered to offer a specific ratio of protein and carbs. Others appeal to vegans or those needing gluten-free nutrition.
One subset of energy bars, organic bars, offers a higher percentage of organic ingredients. REI offers a wide variety of organic bar options.
Another option is raw foods. This subset of energy bars features little or no processing. These bars include whole, uncooked, energy-inducing foods (nuts, seeds, fruits) that are chopped, pressed and compacted into a single-serve package. For on-the-go food purists, this is a great convenience.
With varying quantities of fat included (up to 15 or 20 grams in some items), energy bars are the only performance-food option that serves to quell hunger pangs, though they do so only modestly and briefly.
Energy bars are not the same as meal-replacement bars or snack bars. Still, hikers often use an energy bar as an on-the-go midday snack during a rest stop. This allows them to save time while addressing hunger and energy issues at the same time.
Tip: Drink water when eating an energy bar. Bars are usually dense and chewy and are easier to digest with generous water intake. Avoid washing them down with a performance beverage. Consuming too many carbohydrates at once can slow your body's ability to absorb them.
Shop REI's selection of energy bars.
Gels are popular among hikers, cyclists, paddlers and runners for on-the-go (during-workout) use. They are syrupy, semi-liquid products—usually high concentrations of carbohydrates.
Their chief benefit? They swiftly deliver a very-easy-to-digest energy boost—offering perhaps the quickest energy input of any performance food option. Some gel-makers create specialized gels by adding varying doses of caffeine (a potent fatigue-fighter) or sodium (for people sweating excessively due to high temperatures or humid conditions). Caffeine-enhanced products are usually clearly marked. If you prefer to avoid caffeine, take note when selecting gels.
Gel packets are small, very light (1 or 2 oz.) and easy to stash just about anywhere. Some are sweetened by non-sugar products such as honey, agave or stevia. Note: REI also carries a diabetic-safe chocolate #9 gel.
Shop REI's selection of energy gels.
Bites and Chews
If you find the gooey texture of gels less than appealing, try bites or chews. They are offered in varying consistencies. Some are like gumdrops or gummy bears, while others are more like jelly beans.
Bites and chews provide essentially the same function as a gel—infusing the body with carbohydrates (to delay fatigue) and electrolytes (to replenish stores of salts). Because their soft-yet-solid texture requires slightly more digestive work than a gel, their benefits may be slightly slower to impact your body. They are designed exclusively for the during-workout stage of activity.
Shop REI's selection of energy bites.
Since most performance foods offer sweet or fruity flavors, the snack bar (with a saltier flavor emphasis) now fills the salt-craving void for hikers and other outdoor athletes. These foods offer the convenience of a single-serving snack package that provides a healthier combination of ingredients than can be found on grocery-store shelves. They tend to be less processed than other energy foods, which is appealing to some athletes.
Shop REI's selection of snacks.
Note: REI offers volume discounts on performance and snack foods.
The beverage category, which launched the modern energy-food movement with the introduction of Gatorade in 1965, includes items that cover all the phases of activity—before, during and recovery.
These performance beverages brought the term "electrolytes" into the mainstream lexicon decades ago. Electrolytes are minerals, primarily salts, which exist in your blood and carry electrical impulses (such as muscle contractions) between cells. They are important to bodily processes that involve your heart, nerves and muscles.
Major electrolytes in your body include sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. During hard or prolonged exercise, perspiration drains your body of electrolytes, particularly sodium and potassium. The typical result: fatigue and diminished performance. Performance beverages help prepare and sustain an athlete's body in sweaty conditions.
Beverages with high protein content (and thus higher caloric content) are designed more for recovery, although some beverage-makers assert that protein boosts endurance as well. Nutrients are rushed in liquid form to depleted muscles, speeding their ability to rebound and provide a high level of performance the next day or later that same day.
Effervescent beverages come in tablet or powder form and offer 2 benefits:
- Electrolyte replacement in a lower-calorie liquid.
- A more reservoir-friendly concoction for people who enjoy sipping a flavored beverage through their hydration system.
Effervescent tabs do not create the potential for gunking-up a reservoir the same way a high-carb powdered energy drink mix might. Most effervescent beverages also contain fewer calories than typical sports drinks.
High-calorie drinks are not for everyone, and many trainers and nutritionists advise those training at no more than a moderate level of intensity to drink diluted performance beverages or a low-cal beverage. By consuming fewer calories in their beverages, athletes can rely more on solid food for their caloric intake. Low-cal beverages also minimize residue left inside a hydration reservoir.
One way to add vitamins and nutrients without any calories is through performance supplements. These capsules can offer a variety of benefits depending on your needs. Be sure to follow the directions on the packaging for correct use.
Shop REI's selection of supplements.
What Types of Food and Drink Are Right for You?
Experiment with various products. Stick with the ones that deliver the best results for you. To narrow down your choices, consider the following:
How Strenuous Is Your Activity?
The harder your body works, the more nutrients it loses. REI recommends energy bars since they have an optimum balance of essential nutrients.
How Long Is Your Activity?
The longer your activity, and especially if you can’t take a break, we recommend bites and gels and/or sports drinks. They’re ideal for triathlons, marathons and long bike rides.
How Important Is Convenience?
This depends on your activity and personal preference. Runners prefer gels and drinks; hikers might find an energy bar to be just as convenient.
Do You Have Special Diet Needs or Restrictions?
For example; are you on a low-fat diet? There is no fat in energy drinks. Do you have a really high metabolism that requires a diet higher in calories? If so, energy bars may be a better alternative for you. REI also carries gluten-free foods, vegan foods and foods using a variety of caloric sweeteners.
It's generally fine to combine energy bars, gels and drinks as long as you drink plenty of water to prevent possible upset stomach and keep you well hydrated.
Tip: Always try a new product at home before using it in a race or relying on it for a long hike, run or ride.
Consider nutritional information when choosing energy food and drinks.
Calories: Most energy bars, gels and drinks are relatively low in calories.
Fat: Most energy foods are relatively low in fats, and there is no fat in any of the sport drinks REI carries.
Carbohydrates: This is your main energy source, so the higher the level of activity and duration, the more carbohydrates you need.
Protein: Great for helping your body rebuild tissues and recover after exercise/activity.
Sodium (listed ingredients such as sodium chloride, citrate, selenite, molybdate, benzoate and/or bicarbonate): More commonly known as electrolytes, the above listed ingredients are also essential in metabolizing carbohydrates for the proper functioning of muscles and to help keep you hydrated.
Potassium (listed ingredient as monopotassium phosphate, potassium citrate, L-lactate, dipotassium phosphate and/or potassium iodide): Also considered to be components of electrolytes (see sodium, above), the above listed ingredients are equally essential in metabolizing carbohydrates for the proper functioning of muscles and to help keep you hydrated.
Vitamins and minerals: Your body naturally burns vitamins and minerals through exercise and activity, so the more of these a product has to offer, the better. In general, energy bars have the highest number of vitamins and minerals overall.
Amino acid blends: Leucine, valine and isoleucine are often added to gels only and are basically proteins that are broken down and used by the body to help construct muscles and keep them in good shape.
Sweeteners: A variety of caloric sweeteners are used instead of sugar in some performance beverages, gels and chews, including honey, agave and stevia.
Watch Out for Added Ingredients
If you're caffeine-sensitive, watch out for chocolate and mocha-type flavors in all products. Also, ingredients like guarana, from the herb Guaranis, can contain up to 7% guaranine (just like caffeine), as compared to a cup of coffee that contains 2%.
Shop REI's selection of energy food and drinks.