Energy Gels vs. Energy Bars, When to Eat What?

Energy gels are better. They give you a quick boost in a super compact, energy-dense package. Energy bars are better. They’re tastier, leave you satisfied, and provide more diverse nutrients. (Read in Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison voice.)

Jokes aside, “energy gels versus energy bars” is one of the most discussed topics in sports nutrition. This article gives you a glimpse at how the human body reacts to two types of fuel, and I’ll also share their pros and cons based on previous experiences.

When you eat an energy gel…

As soon as the gel enters your mouth, the enzyme salivary amylase immediately begins to process the simple sugars. Most of the gel is then swallowed into the digestive tract, where carbohydrates are broken down to cross from the small intestine to the bloodstream in the form of glucose.

Insulin is triggered and activates cells to use the glucose or store it for later. The whole process is fast. Mouth-to-muscle time usually takes 5-15 minutes, depending on the athlete.

If you’re interested in diving into the energy gel rabbit hole, here’s a good place to start.

 

When you eat an energy bar…

If you think there are way too many energy gel options, energy bar products are possibly even more diverse and come in all shapes and sizes. 

Ingredients range from natural foods such as nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and grains to artificial additives like maltodextrin and synthetic micro-nutrients.

Just like with gels, as soon as you bite into an energy bar, the same enzyme, salivary amylase, starts to process the simple sugars. Chewing breaks it into smaller pieces for the digestive system.

It’s in your stomach where the differences take place. The typical energy bar contains complex carbohydrates and other nutrients such as dietary fiber and proteins, slowing the digestion process. Although energy bars provide more calories and carbohydrates, they’re slower to empty from the stomach, meaning mouth to muscle process can be significantly slower.

This article goes deeper into the two processes. Have a read.

 

My top 3 pros and cons of energy gels

Pros:

  1. I usually feel energy surges of various magnitude within 5-8 minutes; for some brands, even faster. Gels simply work, especially for shorter and faster events.
  2. Compact, light, and fits well in most fuel-carrying gears.
  3. Super easy to consume when on the move, even at higher intensities.

Cons:

  1. Obviously, the taste ain’t great and I’m always wary of the dreaded sweetness fatigue.
  2. Sugar spikes and crashes are common side effects.
  3. Unhealthy and not suitable as daily workout fuel.

 

My top 3 pros and cons of energy bars

Pros:

  1. If you pick the right brands, they are delicious fuel options and also extremely easy to make yourself.
  2. They make excellent pre-race or pre-workout meals. Some bars are pretty much oatmeal in an aluminum wrapper.
  3. Many types of energy bars provide a more balanced nutritional profile (but probably still can’t be classified as healthy).

Cons:

  1. It takes longer to empty from your stomach and, therefore, slower reacting.
  2. More blood needs to be drawn to the gastrointestinal system for digestion, which means less blood for your body’s cooling mechanisms and muscular activities.
  3. They can become rock hard in the cold (impossible to eat) or they can melt into a sticky goo in hot temperatures (super messy).

 

My energy gel and energy bar tips and strategies

  • For any activity under 90 minutes, I’m okay not refueling as long as I had a decent breakfast.
  • I often eat an energy bar alone or with my breakfast at least two hours before a race or a workout. It’s easy and provides the fuel that the body needs.
  • For marathons, I strictly go with energy gels. When running at marathon effort, chewing and digesting a bar is too taxing.
  • Mix in different gel flavors and brands (remember to test them beforehand) to avoid flavor fatigue. I like to save caffeinated ones for later on in the race.
  • For ultra distances, especially trail ultras, that take 10+ hours and up to 20+, solid food is a must for me. Getting from one water station to the next sometimes takes several hours, so energy bars are perfect for these situations.
  • When consuming energy bars, I don’t eat the whole thing in “one sitting.” It takes me 20-30 minutes to eat a bar. Take a bite, chew it thoroughly and savor the taste. Don’t want to over stress my jaw and stomach. By the way, many brands offer bite-size bars.
  • Packaging is a top priority when selecting an energy bar or a gel. They should rip open easily. Any extra effort to get to my fuel can get annoying when fatigued or stuck in the pain cave.