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Tue 17th Sep 2019
Energy food
Posted by: Editor
Posted on: Wednesday 17th January 2007

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The market is saturated with sports drinks and bars but, when it comes down to it, there really are only a few that meet the needs of triathletes. So, just how do you go about making an informed choice on what to buy and what to eat?

In order to compete effectively any athlete needs to be both fuelled and watered. Our body's fuel comes from two primary sources; carbohydrates and fats. Your body can only hold enough carbohydrate fuel (in the form of glycogen) to keep you going for about 90 minutes but even the leanest athlete has enough fat stored to run several back-to-back marathons. The lesson to be learned here is two-fold:

  • for longer events you need to take on extra carbohydrate during the event
  • you should train your body to use fat as fuel

In basic terms we get 4kcalories per gram of carbohydrate (and the same from protein) but we can get 7kcal from alcohol and a whopping 9kcal from fat. It would seem that we would be better off eating a high-fat diet if we get more energy from it but the snag is that it is harder to burn off the fat because the body prefers to burn carbohydrates. There are many variations on the way that athletes should balance up their diets but the concensus seems to be 50-60% should be carbohydrate, 25-35% should be fats and 10-15% proteins. Oh, and despite the fact that alcohol seems a good energy source do remember that it has other, less beneficial effects!

Protein is a very necessary part of our overall diet but can be ignored so far as getting energy out of it -- during exercise you don't start to break down proteins until everything else has gone and if you're that far into energy-debt you're probably dead anyway! (This process is called catabolysis if you want to Google it for more information.) This article does not cover the use of protein bars and drinks, that will be dealt with in a separate feature, as they are not really intended for use during the race -- High Five's 4:1 product is, currently, a unique exception.

It also matters what type of carbohydrate and fat you consume. In the most basic terms you should be looking for complex carbohydrates in their natural forms; pasta, potatoes, rice, bread, cereals, fruit, etc and not as processed sugars. Similarly, for fats you should be looking for vegetable oils rather than animal fats; unsaturated rather than saturated.

Fluids: hydrate or die!

You also need water -- lots of it! Ideally you should be taking in a couple of litres of fluid a day and then supplementing this during exercise. As a rough rule of thumb you can expect to drink a litre an hour on the bike in normal conditions so if you get back off the bike and there's still water left in your bottle you are probably dehydrated before you start the run!

The most common cause of under-performance in sport is dehydration: it has been shown that each 1% reduction in body fluids leads to around 5% reduction in performance with levels of 4% and more resulting in obvious signs of confusion and distress and by the time you reach 9% you are unlikely to be going anywhere other than a medical facility. Another way of looking at it is that with just 1% fluid loss your 40 minute 10k time turns into around 42 minutes... This is one reason why there are so many sports drinks being promoted in adverts - it's a guick, simple and obvious performace enhancer.

A convenient way of packing in the carbohydrates and the fluids is to use one or other of the carbohydrate powders that you mix with water. Rather than stuffing the face with bowls and bowls of pasta (and that nice, fat-laden cheese or meat sauce) you can drink a couple of litres of the powder mix and get the same benefit. However, a word of warning to anyone who has not used this type of dietary supplementation before.

Do not, under any circumstances, try one of these products out for the first time in a race! Use them as part of a training regime for several weeks and make sure that your system doesn't react badly to large concentrations of various simple and complex carbohydrates being dumped into it. The number of people that snarf an energy bar immediately before an event and dodn't drink is legion. The results are generally not pretty and your performance will probably be below par as you are basically shifting blood into the gut to handle the food and, because you didn't drink, getting dehydrated into the bargain! All the bars and gels have instructions -- read them!

There are three categories of product: bars, drinks and gels.


The original sports bar, and the one that's pretty much synonymous with triathlon, has to be the PowerBar. The standard 65g bar comes in a whole range of flavours, some nice and others very artificial. The texture of the bar is a bit bland and they can get quite sticky so a useful trick is to pre-slice them and pack the bits in cling film rather than trying to struggle with the foil. Water, and quite a lot of it, is a must with these. PowerBar formulate their bars differently in Europe so you may find small variations in the composition when you compare them to bars bought in the North America.

High Five bars are British made and are readily available in this and many other countries. The 60g bar comes in Banana, Citrus, Coconut and Wild Berry. Softer in texture than the PowerBar and easier to chew on the move, it still needs a generous slug of liquid to wash it down. High Five also have a range of chocolate covered energy bars that have a bit more bite and chew and they also make a range of protein bars.

Maxim bars are twin packs weighing in at 55g. The uncoated fruit/ceral bars are very sticky while the chocolate or yoghurt coated ones are impossible to deal with while in motion. Excellent as a post-race replenisher and the chocolate or yoghurt coating gives that little extra something.

SIS GO bars are bigger but open textured due to the puffed rice. Weighing in at 65g they make a decent mouthful but their texture makes them need even more water than a PowerBar to wash down. They are more interesting to eat than the homogenised PowerBar or High Five products and come in a range of flavours including Apple/Blackberry, Chocolate/Orange, Cherry/Vanilla and Tropical.

Just becoming available again in the UK are Clif Bars which more resemble a mis-shapen but very tasty soft muesli biscuit in a pouch (lots of really yummy flavours). Clif Gels (and other products in their range) are only available in the US and are one of those products that you just have to bring back with you from trips over there!

Perfect 10 is a relatively new, all-natural energy bar. Based on fruit, seeds and nuts -- they contain no cerals at all which makes them ideal for anyone who is gluten-intolerant -- the 50gm bars deliver between 164cal (Cranberry) and 208cal (the other flavours) and they actually taste really nice as opposed to artificial nice. One observation about the bars is that because they have less bulk you don't feel that you've actually eaten enough but the calories are there so it's probably just a matter of perception when compared to other bars.


Let's divide sports drinks into two categories;

  • carbohydrate powders you mix with water and can consume before, during and after training or racing.
  • pre-mixed drinks designed for post-exercise energy replacement

Carbohydrate powders

Carbohydrate powders can be sub-divided into Energy, pure carbohydrate such as SiS's PSP22 and High Five's EnergySource, and electrolyte replacement formulations (often described as being isotonic) which provide a reduced carbohydrate load, often using different sugar mixes, plus electrolytes.

High Five have developed a carbohydrate mix that contains four parts of carbohydrate to one of protein, they have called it 4:1. There are a number of claims made, with supporting evidence, that seem to indicate that this is a product with significant potential - especially for those doing longer distance events. After using it for a season there is little doubt that it is at least as effective as a regular carbohydrate drink mix and definite indications that it does do pretty much exactly what they claim on the tin. However, these are not scientific tests and so should only be regarded as feedback from users.

In the electrolyte replacement category we have High Five's Isotonic, SiS's GO, PowerBar's HydroPlus, Isostar and Gatorade. HydroPlus is notable because, although it is a PowerBar product it is unique to Europe and it appears to be the only powder that does not contain Aspartame - something worthy of note for those with certain medical conditions. The 'isotonic' designator is used to indicate that these products deliver their mix of carbohydrates and electrolytes at a lower concentration -- they are effectively the same concentration as the body's own cellular system. The theory is that this allows the good stuff to get into the system faster and there are lots and lots of studies to back this up. One downside, however, is that because the concentration of carbohydrate is lower you are also getting slightly less of the good stuff in every bottle and you will need to factor this in to your nutritional strategy. While you could just drink more of the stuff that probably means that you'll take on too much fluid and need to get rid of it at some point... Probably better to balance things out with some more solid carbohydrate material in the form of bars or, relatively speaking, gels.


Classic examples here are Gatorade, Isostar ( both also available as a powder), Powerade, Lucozade Sport and SiS.Each and every portion should be mixed exactly to the specification but they a) cost more and b) generally don't fit into your bike bottle cage. Keep these handy for after the event! Gatorade's product is often found as the on-course hydration at many races around the world and it is well used getting used to it because if you lose your own nutrition it may well be the only thing available.

An exception to the problem with most pre-packed bottles being the wrong size is TAUT - hailed as being the first 'clean' sports drink. Clean, in this instance, refers to the fact that there are no preservatives, artificial sweeteners, flavourings or colourings in the product which is a very pleasant change in a world filled with lots of rather odd chemicals. As an option to the familiar foil pouch it is available in a 500ml bottle which fits all the standard carriers.


While this product is definitely NOT an energy food, it contains no calories at all, it does offer a balance of electrolytes which many triathletes seem to find very palatable. Each tablet, when combined with 500ml of water, sorts out both the hydration and electrolyte requirements leaving the athlete free to choose bars, gels, concentrates of any other form of energy source to deliver the calories. It also simplifies the calorie calculations because you don't have to factor the hydration in at all (normal isotonic drinks contain calories and these need to be added into the hourly totals -- if you drink less than you should you also take on less calories and the energy debt spiral begins.

The science behind NUUN working more effectively as a hydration source than regular water is based on the fact that when you mix it according to the directions is makes a hypotonic solution rather than an isotonic one. This effectively forces water into the cells so making it hydrate you faster. This works because it's not carrying a carbohydrate load - if you make your sports drink up hypotonically it won't work so well.


In the beginning, the only gel that was widely available in the UK was Leppin's Squeezy. Now we have a whole range of products from all the usual suspects and severl newcomers as well.

PowerBar have a range of gels in one-shot foil pouches, it's quite thick and creamy in consistency and there's a good range of flavours. Definitely a superior product but some athletes find that they can "repeat" a bit at times. Two of the PowerBar flavours, GreenApple and Blackcurrant have added caffeine.

High Five have a regular gel product in several flavours, one with added caffeine. High Five gel is also available as a powder but with this mixing is critical, you can vary between very thick and very runny but at least you can tailor it to your needs this way rather than having to go with what's in the pre-pack. This makes it ideal as a gel tank on long distance races where you can save a lot of cash over buying the pouches - although you will be stuck with one flavour...

Maxim gels come in a large foil pouch - rather like a mini Lucozade Sport or Isostar pack. You're getting twice the volume here and the pack is re-sealable, again good for the longer distances. Again, they offer a caffeinated Vanilla option which comes in either single or double-shot packs.

SIS have an isotonic gel that doesn't require water. The pouches are large and the consistency is pretty "sloppy" so it's a BIG mouthful or you'll waste half the pack but they do seem effective. The flavours are Orange, Tropical and Blackcurrant.

CarbBOOM! originally launched with a product that was sometimes described as 'apple sauce for grown ups' and recently re-launched themselves with a range of sports gels. Their differentiation is that they use natural fruit products to flavour the gels and they actually do taste rather nicer than many of the others. The Chocolate/Cherry flavour, a caffeinated gel, has been dropped and replaced by a plain Vanilla so if you see any of the older type do check the expiry dates.

A newcomer to the party is Honey Stinger which offer a range of gels based around that natural sugar the product is named after. All sorts of claims are made for honey's additonal properties and this is not the place to go into them so just regard this as another gel brand which you either like or dislike. Three of their flavours are also available in a multi-shot bottle which can be dispensed into a gel flask and represent a cost saving way to buy the product.

Frequent travellers to the US are generally found returning with quantities of other gels stuffed into their bags. Clif Bars have a gel product called Clif Shot and there is the outstanding Gu.Clif have also developed a solid gel product which you just pop in the mouth like a sweet and then ther's SportsBeans from JellyBelly which are, basically, specially formulated sweets with added electrolytes.

One warning note regarding some of the gels which have a high caffeine content. While this can perk you up they may actually contribute to dehydration as caffeine acts as diuretic. Some studies (see Peak Performance) indicate this may not be a significant issue in regular caffeine users. Our over-riding advice, however, is to remember to put the fluids in as well as the carbs!

Product resources


Carb BOOM!
High Five
Honey Stinger
Perfect 10
Science in Sport (SiS)

Nutrition resources

Gatorade Sports Science Institute
Lucozade Sports Science Academy

Online suppliers


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