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Real Food vs Bars and Gels - Which are Better for Fueling Long Rides?

by Cindy Dallow, PhD, RD

You’re headed out for a 3 hour ride and you’re wondering whether to take a banana, gel, or extra sport drink to get the carbs you need for endurance. Which one is better?

According to a couple of recent studies, any of those are equally as good at getting you through that ride.

In the first study, researchers gave trained cyclists 150 grams of carbohydrate from either bananas or Gatorade before a 75 km cycling performance test and every 15 minutes during the test. No other sources of carbs were given.

Results showed no differences between the groups in mean power, rate of perceived exertion (RPE), heart rate, blood glucose levels, or total time to finish the test. 

However, subjects in the banana group reported feeling significantly fuller and more bloated than those in the Gatorade group, most likely due to the additional 15 grams of fiber they consumed from the bananas.

This study suggests several things to think about. First, bananas are just as good as Gatorade at providing adequate amounts of carbohydrate during a 3 hour ride. However, the fiber content of bananas (or any fruit) can slow the digestive process and for some people, cause feelings of fullness and bloating. One banana isn't likely to cause much of a problem but if you have several and/or add other fruits, you could experience some GI issues.

Another study suggests real food can be as good as nutrition products marketed for endurance athletes. A group of trained runners ran 80 minutes on a treadmill at 75% VO2 max followed by a 5k time trial (TT) in three separate trials separated by 7-14 days. In the first trial they were given only water, in the 2nd trial they were given raisins, and in the third trial they were given sport “chews”. Carbohydrate content was the same in the latter two trials.

Results showed no significant differences between the raisin trials and the “chews” trials in VO2, heart rate, RPE, lactate, blood glucose, muscle soreness or fatigue ratings, gastrointestinal symptoms, or finish times. There was, however, a significant difference between the two carb-containing trials and the water-only trial: the runners finished up to a minute faster in both the carb-containing trials compared to the water-only trial.

Thus, real food is just as good as commercially-made sport products in supporting running performance and both are better than taking in only water.

My take on both of these studies: I prefer real food over commercially-made products any day but there are times when the latter is more convenient. Whether you choose a banana or sports drink for a long run or ride depends on which one is handy, which one you like better, and which one is more "transportable" - we all know that bananas can get smooshed in a bike jersey very easily!

Some kind of carbohydrate is better than none for endurance activity so it's up to you what the source will be. Whatever you use, be sure to practice with that food or product several times before race day!

Here are some real food options compiled by Becca Blumberg, MS RD:

Simple and Sweet

  • Peanut butter and jelly or honey (~50 grams carbs) Try a tortilla to avoid soggy bread

  • Fresh fruit (~20-30 grams carbs) bananas, apples, and oranges pack well

  • 2 Large dates (36 grams carbs)

  • 2 Tubes squeezable yogurt (22 grams carbs)

  • 2 Fig bar cookies (~40 grams carbs)

  • Sports bar (~25 g carbs) cut into thirds or quarters to make energy chews

  • 1 1⁄2 oz Teddy grahams (31 grams carbs)

  • 30 Jelly beans (30 grams carbs)

  • Squeezable applesauce (~15 grams carbs/pouch)

  • 2 oz Peanut M&Ms (32 gram carbs)

Snappy and Savory

  • 1 oz Pretzels (23 grams carbs)

  • 1 1⁄2 oz Oyster crackers (20 grams carbs)

  • 1 oz Baked potato chips (24 grams carbs)

  • Mashed potato or sweet potato (~20-30 grams carbs per half cup)

  • 1 oz Bagel chips (19 grams carbs)

  • 1⁄2 cup GORP: raisins & peanuts (30 g carbs)

  • 1⁄2 Bagel with peanut butter (~40 grams carbs)

  • 2 oz Jerky (6 grams carbs)

  • 2 Rice cakes (15 grams carbs)

  • Mashed potatoes - (35 grams/cup) Pack in a ziplock bag and rip off a corner for a DIY squeeze pack

  • 4 Pierogies (35 grqams carb) Pack in a ziplock bag

Energy Ball Recipe Roundup

Salty Balls

Combine 1⁄2 cup nut butter (peanut or almond), 1/3 cup maple syrup, 1⁄2 cup chocolate protein powder, 1 cup dry oatmeal (or 2/3 cup rice crisps). Add a sprinkle of salt on top. Makes 10 balls, and each ball contains about 22 grams of carbs.

Almond Date Balls

Place 1 cup almonds in a food processor and pulse to a coarse meal. Add 1 cup pitted dates, and 1⁄2 cup almond butter, and pulse a few more times. Flavor with 1 tsp vanilla extract, 1⁄2 tsp ground cinnamon and a couple of pinches of kosher salt. Add extra almond butter if the mixture seems dry. Using a tablespoon, scoop out equal portions of the mixture and roll into balls. Store these bites in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 weeks. Makes 14 balls, and each ball contains about 12 g carbs.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Energy Balls

Combine 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats, 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt, 1⁄2 cup creamy peanut butter, 1⁄4 cup honey and 1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla extract in the bowl of a stand mixer or large mixing bowl. Mix on low until well combined. Stir in 2 tablespoons of mini chocolate chips. Roll the mixture into small balls, about 1 to 2 tablespoons per ball. Place in an airtight container and keep refrigerated for up to 2 weeks. Source:

Lemon Energy Balls

Pulse 1/4 cup of almonds and 1/4 cup cashews in the food processor until there are mostly small pieces. Add 1 tbsp of lemon zest and 18 dates to the food processor and process until the mixture just starts to come together. If the mixture is too dry, add in dates one by one until the mixture is sticking together. Pinch off pieces of the mixture and roll into balls.

Have questions or a recipe to share? Send it to Cindy Dallow at

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