Well, it is a cold, grey day here in New England. And I am coming down from the adrenaline high that two days of tough racing will produce. I'm now left with exhaustion, which in combination with the unforgiving sky makes everything seem lost. I'm deeply missing rowing and have had dreams the last two nights worrying about lab and crashing after seeing a friend crash first hand on Sunday and having a few other friends already have bad accidents this year. I know this will pass once the sun comes out and my fiancé returns from his travels, but right now I feel like I'm being sucked back into my ugly abyss of despair... Yikes! These lows are bound to happen... you can only ride adrenaline so long!
Back to the topic of the day... drinks, gels, and bars that I think are particularly worthwhile. For most of my sports life, I avoided all of these things. Which I could get away with in swimming, and almost even in rowing, but definitely not as a cyclist. I hate drinking Gatorade and Powerade during sport. It's so sticky and sweet... blah! I can almost feel the bees swarming around me as my hands and equipment get coated with the stickiness that inevitably runs down the sides of the bottle. No thanks! I tried diluting it and also tried the low sugar versions back in the day: Zero and G2, but to me those just tasted like chemicals. Exactly what you want to be putting into your body when your furnace is burning it's hottest, right??? Anyways, over time I've done my research and experimented with various products. Below are the drinks, gels, and bars that I currently prefer and why I like them. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but just some suggestions as to what I think works!
Best for Before: UCAN Tropical Orange
Powered by "SuperStarch," a slow burning carbohydrate with long lasting blood-sugar stabilizing effects this is a new comer to the market. This particular flavor is sweetened with monk fruit extract, which I find far superior to stevia or xylitol, which many other companies use as "natural" sweeteners. I haven't tried this during exercise yet: it's expensive and it's recommended that you consume the entire serving at once, which just is NOT going to happen for me during a race, since it's all I can do to convince myself to drink a bottle over a couple of hours. This was recommended to me by a pro-triathlene friend and I love it for before racing! I threw in some protein powder with it and didn't have a problem getting my nervous pre-race stomach to accept it, unlike solid food. The only downside is that it costs $70 (when you include shipping) for a 32-serving tub. Ouch!
Best for During: Hammer Heed, Unflavored
Hammer did it. They made a sports drink that tastes like... nothing! I strongly prefer the taste of pure water to sports drinks during strenuous exercise and the unflavored version tastes like water and delivers calories and electrolytes. Win-win! I'm not thrilled about the xylitol or stevia, but I can't taste them so I try to ignore them.
Best to Sustain: Hammer Perpetuem
Electrolytes, protein, natural carbohydrates, and amino acids. This product delivers everything you would want during an endurance race, although I've recently read that the verdict is still out on the necessity of protein. I've tried the Orange-Vanilla and found it mild, palatable, and not too sweet. I'll probably also try the Unflavored. Strawberry is kind of weird and the Caffe-Latte isn't really refreshing. I'll confess: I don't find this product to be perfect. It uses soy protein, which my stomach can be finicky about. I use a fairly dilute bottle and haven't had any problems as of yet, but I'm still on a look-out for a product that delivers everything else that Perpetuem offers with a non-soy protein.
Best for Recovery: Vega Recovery Accelerator, Tropical
This stuff is gold. It tastes awesome, and provides everything you need to recover quickly. I started using it late last summer and immediately I noticed that my recovery time between workouts and races significantly improved. Bonus points for it's complete, plant-based protein but points off for the use of stevia. It's normally $40 for a tub that'll last me 4-6 weeks, but it's on sale for $30 through the end of April at Whole Foods. Go buy some, it's worth every penny! (And it will probably start earning back it's keep for you, if you tend to do races with cash prizes!)
Best All-Natural Solution: 1:1:1 Cherry Juice: Coconut Water: Water
Most of 2013, I went with this option but ultimately found the Heed products delivered more calories and were easier to stomach during races. I still prefer this for winter training and LSD rides. Coconut water offers natural electrolytes and cherry juice has been shown reduce muscle damage during exercise. Plus, it's not too sweet and you can easily find it at Trader Joe's or your local grocery store!
Best "Natural:" Honey Stinger Gold
Honey with electrolytes, plain and simple. No odd ingredients or unnatural sugars and I find it to be super-palatable and the perfect viscosity. Also, the packets are super easy to open, even with numb hands. (Found this out this weekend while racing at Quabbin!) The only downside is that this has a really high glycemic index. This can be a bonus: if you eat one about a minute before your final sprint or when you try to make a break, it'll hit you fast. But it also causes a sugar crash, so if you only eat these to power a 3-4 hour race, you will feel a little queazy afterwards and never want to touch sugar ever again. This weekend, I found that drinking UCAN before the race and mixing this gel up with others helped mitigate the crash.
Best with Protein: Accel Gel 2nd Surge
Filled with natural sugars (agave, brown rice syrup, cane sugar), electrolytes, and whey protein I find this to be easy to deal with during a race and it also doesn't cause quite the crash that the honey does, since it's coupled with slower-burning protein. Props to Pacific Health Labs for not using soy protein, but lots of people have trouble with whey protein, so hopefully in the next iteration they will up the ante and find an even better alternative. (Pea protein, please?) The only downside is the low viscosity: it is quite runny in the summer heat.
Best with Caffeine: Hammer Gel, Espresso
Powered by maltodextrin and supplemented with natural sweeteners, amino acids, and electrolytes this gel would take higher marks all around if not for it's viscosity. I find it to be really too thick except for all but the hottest of summer days. It's not yet been warm enough this year for me to actually be able to get all of the gel out of a packet. Packets are also frustratingly hard to open, thanks to the cute hammer shape they put on the top.
I haven't found a bar that I can eat during a race, my stomach just won't have it. I can safely say though, that I've pretty much tried every bar under the sun. Cliff and Luna bars taste great, and offer protein and are fortified with nutrients, but unfortunately also pack in a ton of sugar and use soy protein. Many athletes eat a ton of these, since they are convenient and offer a good balance of macronutrients. However, I attribute these bars to my over-exposure to soy, which caused my intolerance. Should I have eaten less of them? Sure. But I don't think I approached these bars any differently than most athletes. My personal preference currently are the Lara Cherry Pie Bars. All natural ingredients, no processed sugars, no soy protein, and all the performance benefits of cherries. Cherry Cashew Pure Bars are also great for the same reasons, and have even more protein than the Lara bars. Both are gluten free, as are all the products I use for racing!
What works for you and why do you like it? Feel free to share your favorites in the comments below!