REAL FOOD VS. ENERGY BARS
One of the best parts of riding is eating. Let’s be real; most of us ride so we can eat whatever we want and not feel guilty about it later. Riders need to fuel their bodies, especially during long or hard efforts. There are plenty of energy bars, supplements and real food out there that can provide the energy you need for that long endurance ride or downhill race.
There is a lot of debate about the best way to fuel your body. We don’t see pro riders eating pizza before a race or snacking on a whole potato during a long climb, which has led some to believe that energy food is the best option. Whether real food or energy bars are better is fairly subjective; everybody reacts differently to various foods. But, we can offer some guidelines for riders looking to experiment and see which has a better effect on their system.
There are a lot of studies out there focusing on cycling nutrition with varying results. Sometimes, the simplest solution is the best one. Real foods can offer riders all they need. Our test riders tried a broad range of foods—from pizza to salted meats—to see how their bodies would react to some unconventional sports nutrition. The results were surprising in some cases.
On the trail:
Our rides were anywhere from one to six hours in duration, depending on how ambitious we were. The length of our rides had a pretty big effect on the types of foods we chose to eat and how our bodies reacted to them. Most of our nutrition focused on protein and carbohydrates with some sugars added in. On shorter rides (under two hours) we focused on lighter foods that were easier to digest. In the Southern California heat, this meant apple slices, small candies and nut butters for quick energy. Different types of nut butters have become very popular over the last couple years, and this was one food that our riders couldn’t get enough of on shorter riders. Justin’s Nut Butters and ProBar Almond Butters were easy to carry, and the dense calories packed a punch on shorter rides. These butters also have enough fat calories to sustain you on longer rides and didn’t wear out any of our riders’ palates.
On longer rides we noticed a drastic change in what our riders wanted. With more calories being burned, their appetites grew immensely. We started by packing regular foods, including a slice of pizza on one ride, which we will never do again. It sounded like a delicious idea, but it was difficult to digest and brought our energy way down. We recommend saving foods like this for after the ride. Long hours in the saddle had most of our riders craving foods that were more substantial. With foods like turkey sandwiches, chocolate chip cookies, Fig Newtons, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, our testers felt like they were able to recover plus enjoy a decent meal.
Small bits that we really enjoyed on longer rides were turkey jerky, Lay’s potato chips and meat sticks. These foods gave us plenty of salt and tasted amazing, especially on long trail rides. Turkey and beef jerky are easy to pack and provide good protein to help keep your energy up on long rides. There are some bars that we enjoyed, like ProBar meal bars, Kind granola bars and Bonk Breakers. All of these companies use good ingredients, and the bars taste like real food.
There are some of us at Mountain Bike Action who have been using energy food exclusively and understand how it can make your body feel. Energy food can be very effective, especially on shorter, harder efforts, like in a race. GU and other energy shots deliver a very quick source of energy, as do chews, which are high in sugar and caffeine. Endurance athletes will often load up on gels for the quick energy and to help minimize how much blood is being used to digest the food. Gels and chews are generally higher in sugar and carbohydrates, which is what makes them so effective on the racecourse.
On the trail:
We rode the same distances as with our real-food experiment but used gels and chews as our only source of nutrition. We had more energy, and the gels replenished our energy levels much quicker than most of the real foods we ate. The mix of sugars and carbs was like putting jet fuel into our systems. Some of our test riders did get tired of the strong flavors after a few hours, though.
Most of our test riders were impressed by how quickly and effectively the gels and chews got into their systems. The caffeinated products gave us a massive boost but also a little bit of an energy crash once our bodies burned them up. These types of crashes can be avoided, but require riders to be very diligent about their food intake.
WHAT WOULD YOU EAT?
Some pro riders spend quite a bit of time perfecting their nutrition, and many have found a mix of real and energy foods to be quite effective. Energy foods deliver quick nutrients to our bodies in a very effective package but have some drawbacks. Real foods might not give riders that massive burst of energy but will keep riders feeling energetic more consistently on longer rides. The only way to know what works for you is to experiment to see how your body reacts to various sources of energy on different kinds of rides.
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