Carbo-loading might be your favoured approach in the run-up to an event, but as your ride time draws near and once you’re actually out and riding – if you intend to push yourself at all that is – you’ll need easily digestible sources of energy to keep you going.
Your body uses different sources of fuel depending on how hard you’re working: in a long, steady session, you’ll be part relying on stored fat but you also need stored muscle glycogen, both for quick burning bursts of energy on steep climbs for example, and as an ongoing background catalyst to help you burn fat. Energy bars, drinks and gels are designed to be quickly absorbed to keep blood glucose topped up to aid fat burning efficiency.
The stuff we’re talking about here is powder that you mix up with water for your hydration pack or bottle.
A typical sports drink uses a complex carbohydrate (glucose polymer) formulation which is absorbed more quickly than simple sugars. Complex carbs are easier on the stomach because they’re less sweet. Avoid sports drinks which don’t use these complex carbs / maltodextrin.
At the right concentration an energy drink has the advantage of giving you an energy top-up at the same time as maintaining hydration. Concentration is key though, any more than around 8 per-cent glucose in your mix and you’ll actually encourage dehydration. There’s also a degree of personal preference, and many people find a lower concentration easier to digest and more palatable. Experiment with levels of concentration to find which works best for you.
These tend to inspire a love or hate response. The sticky gels are absorbed much faster and more easily than solid food and you should feel the effect after about 10 minutes. Most come in small packs of around 25g and provide about 300 calories plus the odd added nutrient, notably sodium, reckoned to aid hydration during exercise. With most gels you need to drink plenty of water (make sure you check the instructions). SIS do an isotonic gel which you don’t need to drink water with, but you’ll probably want to wash it done a bit at least.
Energy bars feel most like eating normal food, but like gels and drinks they’re designed to be easy on the stomach and provide a quick release of energy. That makes them ideal if you feel you need the physical sensation of actually eating something, but have limited digestion time. There are all kinds of energy bars on the market and levels of both nutrients and fat vary. If you’re using bars as your main source of energy make sure you opt for a low fat one.
You’ll also find a wide variety of flavours available, with chocolate variations being very popular. If a bar works for you but you’re not too impressed with the flavour then have a root around and see if they do a more palatable version. The chocolate orange PowerBar, for example, does nothing for us, but the mocha and apple and cinnamon versions are a relative treat. It’s obvious, but bear in mind that chocolate-covered stuff may sound more appealing but it won’t travel so well in warm conditions.
Unsurprisingly none of these options are particularly cheap, our favourite option when we’re strapped for cash is to fall back on bananas or homemade bars. More on those another time!