Skip to content

Drinks, Gels, Bars or "Real Food?" What Should I Use?

In this article, we compare the different types of carbohydrate sources so you can decide what works best for you!

Carbohydrate intake during exercise can provide fuel and improve performance during longer events (more than 2 hours). It can even improve performance as short as 45 minutes. Fluid intake can help prevent severe dehydration and also contribute to performance. But is it best to drink sports drinks, gels or bars, bananas or other sources of carbohydrate? In races, different athletes seem to apply varying strategies and we see athletes compete on drinks only but also athletes who consume a full smorgasbord! This article will compare the different carbohydrate sources, so you can decide what is best for you.



Drinks, Gels, Bars or Real Food Infographic


What is a Sports Drink?

Typically, a sports drink such as Neversecond's C30 Sports Drink has 6-7% carbohydrate (this means 60-70 grams of carbohydrate in 1 litre). Studies have shown that if the carbohydrate concentration increases above this level, gastric emptying and possible carbohydrate absorption may be reduced. This reduction is more severe when carbohydrate concentrations are 10% or more. But a sports drink delivers carbohydrate in addition to just water and this can be an advantage in many situations. A small amount of carbohydrate actually helps fluid delivery as well.


What is a High-Carb drink?

This product was popular in the late 1980s, especially amongst cyclists. 17% carbohydrate solutions delivered a lot of carbohydrate (products contained anywhere between 12 and 20% carbohydrate). This seemed a good idea to deliver a lot of energy at once. The problem was that these products were sometimes associated with stomach problems. In those days it was not known that by using the right combination of carbohydrates you could minimise GI problems and improve both fluid delivery and carbohydrate delivery. Today, there are several High Carb Drink Mixes on the market that effectively address this challenge. Neversecond's C90 High Carb Mix one of them. Such drinks in general deliver more carbohydrate in the same volume of fluid than a regular sports drink and are usually a lot sweeter as a logical consequence. When carrying a lot of liquid is a problem, these products can be a very convenient solution.


What is an Energy Gel?

An energy gel, such as Neversecond's C30 Energy Gel, is a semi-liquid form of carbohydrate. It is designed to deliver carbohydrate that is rapidly available. In some sporting situations it is not easy to carry water bottles and gels are an option to carry a lot of energy in a compact form. There are generally two types of gels on the market: the traditional gel is more like a syrup; it is more compact and easier to carry. If gels contain more liquid this means that you will be carrying carry more water in each gel packet (and thus weight) with you, but most athletes find them easier to consume. It is not that one form is better than the other, it just depends on personal preference.


What are Energy Chews?

A chew is the next step up from a gel. It is literally like candy (sweets). It is almost entirely made of carbohydrate and will provide energy very rapidly. This is a very compact form of energy because most of the water has been removed.


What is an Energy Bar?

An energy bar is more like traditional food and some athletes prefer to chew food and have something solid in their stomachs. There is a wide range of bars on the market. There are bars based on fruits, nuts, oats, dates, figs, rice crispies and so on. The list is endless. It is very clear that the bars that are labeled as healthy are not always the most appropriate bars to consume during activity. Fibre, fat and protein have all been shown to reduce carbohydrate and fluid delivery. So, you should really be looking for a bar that contains little of these nutrients such as Neversecond's C30 Fuel Bar. Especially fat can have a significant impact on gastric emptying. So read the label before you decide. If the exercise intensity is low, virtually any type of food could be consumed. But it does matter in all situations where we want to deliver energy and fluid rapidly and performance is important to us. In studies we have shown that a bar with as little as 3 grams of fat and 2 grams of fibre, can deliver carbohydrate almost as rapidly as a sports drink. (The bars were consumed with water). When we did these studies the fluid intake in these two conditions was kept the same: water was ingested with the energy bar and the amount of fluid was the same in both conditions.


Portables and “Real Foods”

Some athletes prefer what they call real foods: fruits like bananas or dried fruits like figs, dates or raisins are often consumed. Some athletes prefer cheese sandwiches or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their long training sessions. In races we sometimes see small, salted potatoes as a carbohydrate source. There are numerous options (although not all of them are good options). The criteria for a good portable or “real” food is the same as that for bars. It needs to be low in fat, fibre and protein and as long as it fulfils those criteria it will very likely work. All of these products have one thing in common. They all deliver carbohydrate. The main difference is essentially how much water is already in the product. Solid foods have relatively little water (some almost none), and sports drinks have a lot of water. The advice is to ingest water with the solid and gels. What is best depends on a few factors:

  1. How much carbohydrate do you need?
  2. How much fluid do you need?
  3. What can you carry?
  4. Personal preferences. Some athletes like solid foods during exercise, others hate it. Some can't take gels, others find them an easy and quick way to consume the carbs.

In general, if the intensity is higher, we breathe harder and chewing is more difficult, drinks and gels are probably preferred. In longer events, when the intensity is lower and “stomach feel” may be quite important, solid foods may be a good option for most. In all cases drinking should occur relative to the rate of sweat loss.


Shop Products

Energy Gels

Caffeinated Energy Gels

Fuel & Hydration Mixes

Energy Bars


Related Articles

What Should I Eat on the Morning of My Race?

10 Ways to Avoid Gastrointestinal Problems


If you have any questions about this article, or any other questions - simply reach out to us at We're here to help!

Your Bag

Your bag is currently empty.

Start Shopping
Select options