SPORTS DRINKS, BARS, OR GELS: WHICH ARE BEST?
There are so many products out there that claim they will enhance athletic performance. Three commonly used products are: sports drinks, energy bars, and energy gels. Are there benefits to using one over the other? Let’s take a look . . .
Research has been done on all of the above products. Keep in mind; however, there are many brands of each product, and research may not have been conducted on all products sold. In general, using a sports drink has been shown to not only improve performance, but, in one study, runners who drank the sports drink ran faster and felt that the race was easier compared to runners who drank a placebo. Note: It is important that a placebo is used in studies in order to be sure that the changes that a researcher observes are due to the effects of the intervention, not just by chance.
As far as energy gels are concerned, research has also shown that they may be helpful for athletes, too. A recent study conducted at California State University at Sacramento compared the use of a gel to a placebo. Although the researchers did not assess performance, they did report that there were higher levels of blood glucose (sugar) in the athletes who consumed the gel compared to the placebo group. One can speculate that this higher blood glucose will be used for energy, and thus, spare stored carbohydrate, called “glycogen “, in the muscle. Since the gels do not provide fluids, it is important to drink plenty of fluids, as well.
How do energy bars rate? Well, several researchers have investigated the effectiveness of solid versus liquid carbohydrates. It doesn’t seem to matter if you take in solid or liquid carbohydrates, but, it does matter that you also drink water with solid carbohydrates. If athletes like the taste of energy bars, it may be worthwhile for athletes to try them; since they are convenient and athletes can keep several energy bars in their sports bag for quick energy boosts.
Sports drinks provide both energy and fluid and may be best for some individuals who either dislike the taste of energy gels or bars, or who cannot handle consuming semi-solid or solid forms of carbohydrates, respectively, when they practice or compete. As mentioned above, energy gels and bars have shown positive results for athletes in studies, but it must be emphasized that water still needs to be consumed. As a guideline, an athlete should consume between 5 to 12 ounces of water every 15 minutes. For activity lasting less than 1 hour, water alone is sufficient.
Strenuous activity lasting over an hour requires both fluid and energy replacement (15-30 grams of carbohydrate every 1/2 hour, which translates to 8-10 ounces of sports drink, 1 standard-size gel packet, or 1/2 of an energy bar). Another thing to remember: energy gels and bars may be convenient but are expensive. Furthermore, unless athletes have a taste for energy gels and bars, these products may not be for them. Finally, whenever athletes want to try new dietary regimens, always have them do so during practices, in case athletic performance is negatively affected.
Some researchers have suggested that, depending on how quickly a food is able to raise blood sugar, there may be an effect on performance. This concept is known as glycemic index. This might mean all sources of carbohydrates in food products (including bars, gels, and drinks) are not the same.