A Beginner's Guide to Sports Energy Nutrition

2014 Aug | By

by Jarrod Shoemaker, 2008 Olympian


Once upon a time, nutrition was simple, people ate what they could forage for. Then we domesticated some plants, agriculture came along and we started to grow staple crops like wheat, corn and beans. Soon massive farms were producing food to be shipped all around the world. Now all we have to do is walk or drive to the grocery store (or order online) and select the foods we want. It is so much simpler today than it was… or is it?

Walking up and down the grocery store aisles can be a mind-numbing task, with an average grocery store stocking 43,844 different items! This is very comparable to the current sports nutrition market. Looking at every brand can be quite a task and trying to figure out what they are for can be even harder.

The simplest way to break sports nutrition down is into four categories: bars, chews, gels and mixes. My goal is to give you a simple primer to help you make sense of it all, regardless of what sport you do – but of course, keep in mind I always come from the angle of an endurance athlete.


This category is the simplest to describe, but there are many varieties of bars. A bar is well anything pressed into a bar form and made from (mostly) solid foods! When looking at different types of bars it is important to see what is in them, some offer more protein, some more fruits and nuts and others are very high in calories. Some use dates and some use oats as the main ingredients.

The best usage for bars is NOT as a meal replacement, but instead for use as a quick snack when you are feeling hungry between workouts or meals – perhaps when traveling to a race. I typically have a few bars lying around in my bag in case I need something quick to eat when I feel a bit low on energy. In addition, using bars on longer bike rides are a terrific snack and taste great after just having sports drinks or water.

Make sure to look at the protein concentration of the bars, bars with higher protein are better to eat in between meals as protein is a bit harder to digest during a workout. I also recommend reading the labels and understanding the caloric intake of the various bars. You’d be amazed what kind of calorie punch a big bar can have.

BEST FOR: Eating in between meals or workouts, sustained energy, long bike rides or a long hike; after a workout to fight off the hunger before a proper meal.
TOP BRANDS: Bonk Breaker, Quest Bars, PROBAR, Picky Bars


This category has developed quite a bit in the last few years as more and more companies are making quick chews. Some are gummy and some are more like jelly beans. There are some now that are like wafers – which almost makes them a cross between a bar and a chew! Chews are made of mainly sugar making them give a quick boost of energy for muscles, but not helping you feel very satiated.

One of the nice things about chews is the feeling of actually eating something as opposed to putting a gel or sports drink in your mouth during a workout.

BEST FOR: Eating during a workout or just before for quick energy.


This category is fairly specific to the sports nutrition world, who else would want to squeeze flavored syrup or thick goo into their mouths while working out? Most normal people would take a break from what they are doing and eat some real food, but that is not an option during a hard workout or race. One of the nice things about a gel is it’s a bit easier to eat then a chew and you can swallow it quicker – minimizing any efforts while taking it in. You’d be amazed during long endurances races how you’re body doesn’t want to spend ANY extra energy on the act of eating a bar or chew.

Gels come in many different flavors and carbohydrate to protein ratios. Make sure to test out gels BEFORE your big race to see which one you like the most and which flavors you can take while racing. Do not try something for the first time on race day! Gels do not agree with everyone due to their odd consistency and can make . Always make sure to drink water with a gel, they are very concentrated sugars and your body needs additional water to be able to digest them.

BEST FOR: Eating during hard, long workouts & during races for quick energy.


Drink mixes are nothing new, but over the past years the variety and sophistication of drink mixes has truly exploded. When you are looking at drink mix, make sure to buy the right type of drink mix.
1) Pre-loading – These mixes contain the nutrients needed to help sustain you during a long workout. Some have high sodium concentrations to help your body retain water, others contain essential electrolytes and carbohydrates your body will use during workouts

2) Sustained energy – These mixes contain ingredients essential for hydration and electrolyte balance during a workout. These mixes would be in water bottles during a bike session or on the pool deck during a swim. The goal of these mixes is to help you keep your energy high during your workout by allowing giving you sugars.

3) Recovery – These mixes contain essential carbohydrates and proteins for recovery. The goal of a workout is to go as hard as your coach wants, but also to start to recover for your next workout. Drinking a recovery mix can help your body speed up the recovery process by giving it nutrients to absorb quickly.

These drink mixes come in various flavors and concentrations and are not all the same. It is important to find what works for you during your training and then use that same process on race day.

Also, I don’t believe that you always need to use the ratios suggested on the containers or packets. I frequently like to water down the mix to contain more parts water then the directions specify, especially if I am combining it with one of the nutrition items above.

BEST FOR: Pre-loading, sustained energy, recovery.
TOP BRANDS: CytoSport, Core Power, Nuun, Pacific Health Labs

Sports nutrition has taken leaps and bounds over the past 100 years and the bars, chews, gels and mixes available now are all designed to help your body get through hard workouts and recover from them. Do not simply rely on what your friend uses, be sure to test out different types of nutrition and different types of bars and gels in training and you’ll be able to find your optimal mix on race day!

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