Photo: MBLifestyle (Shutterstock)
Gels, bars, sports drinks and shakes are wonderful inventions that allow us to get the right nutrients into our body at the right time during exercise. But regular plain old food works just as well in many cases – and it’s often cheaper.
What to try instead of gels
If you do long runs or bike rides, gels (like Gu) or sports chews (like Clif Shot Bloks) can provide some simple carbohydrates while you exercise. But since it’s basically just sugar, you can easily substitute for other easy-to-consume carbohydrates.
I learned from the other runners in a marathon training group that fruit snacks are an easy and cheap substitute for the gels we have drunk over and over again. Go to the cereal section of the grocery store and you will find them prepackaged for the kids’ lunch boxes.
In all fairness, almost any type of candy can work. Just find something with about the right amount of carbohydrates (you will need about 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour after the first hour, depending on your height) and not too much fat or protein. Starchy foods also count; Pretzels and gummy bears both provide carbohydrates during exercise.
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Make sure you can eat it on the go. For many of us, this rules out anything that requires a lot of chewing or that crunches and splinters while eating, like french fries. Some trail runners love raisins. Keep trying new things in case your choices don’t match your gut.
What to try instead of sports drinks
A drink like Gatorade does three things that water doesn’t: it provides you with carbohydrates (sugars) for nourishment while you exercise; It provides sodium to replace the salt you sweat out. and it typically supplies some other electrolytes, like potassium.
If you don’t work out long or hard enough to lose a lot of sweat, water is probably fine. For information on carbohydrates, see our candy or starchy food suggestions above.
When it comes to electrolytes, you have options. Watering down Gatorade is easy on your stomach if you drink a lot of it. You can also use an electrolyte powder or tablet like Nuun or Liquid IV. But what if you want electrolytes from real foods?
Fortunately, most of us don’t have to work too hard to replace electrolytes. If you only exercise an hour or two, water will do and your next meal should be able to get the sodium and potassium in order. However, if you’re concerned, a salty snack like pretzels or french fries can provide both carbohydrates and sodium. And a banana contains 422 milligrams of potassium, compared to 30 milligrams in a serving of sports drink.
What to try before training
If you just can’t feel at home in the gym without a scoop of fruity, caffeinated powder, it’ll be difficult to replace that feeling. Many pre-workouts contain beta-alanine, the can cause an itchy tingling sensation in your skin; I can’t think of any food that does that.
But the main reason a lot of people use a pre-workout is because of the caffeine. That is what is behind the idea of using it for an “energy boost”. However, you can easily replace the pre-workout with another source of caffeine such as coffee.
Just check the amount: one scoop of C4 contains 150 milligrams of caffeine, which is roughly the equivalent of a cup or a cup and a half of strong coffee (coffee’s caffeine content depends on the bean, roast, and other factors, so it’s difficult to pin down exactly after below).
Protein shakes and bars
Protein powder is a convenient way to add extra protein to your diet, but there is nothing special about drinking your protein in shake form. It is similar with protein bars. A scoop of protein powder often contains around 20 grams of protein, and most protein bars contain between 10 and 20 grams of protein.
You can choose the bar or the shake, but don’t think that the amount of protein you get is anything special. A 3-ounce serving of chicken breast, about the size of a deck of cards, contains 27 grams of protein. one egg has six; a can of tuna has 20; A small container of non-fat Greek yogurt has 17. So serve yourself one of these high protein foods (or whatever you choose) and you don’t need the bar or the shake.