northern california renaissance faire & festival, hollister california

Lee: Fuel School in session

Emanuel Lee

Welcome to Fuel School 101. Yes, there’s a science to properly fueling the body for competition. High school athletes, take notice. For this article, I’ll focus on the ubiquitous energy bar, which has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. San Benito High junior three-sport standout Marisa Villegas loves Clif Bars; last year at the end of the track season, Villegas told me in addition to her regular meals, she sometimes ate two to three Clif Bars a day during her most intense workout sessions/races (hey, when you run as fast as she does, you need some serious fuel).
Athletes of all ages and levels eat energy bars because they’re convenient, tasty (well, some of them anyway) and an easy way to put calories in the body. But given the hundreds of choices out on the market—the food bar section at Target or Whole Foods take up an entire aisle—which bar is right for you? Fortunately, you only need to take into account a couple of factors when selecting an energy bar to properly fuel your body for premium performance.
Timing matters. An hour before and during competition, you want a bar that is high in carbohydrate, which is the body’s primary fuel source. Carbs are the rocket fuel for athletic performance—period. What about fat, protein and fiber?
“They’re not really needed,” Beth Shutt said in an article on the Outdoor Magazine Twitter feed. Shutt is a registered dietitian (RD) and a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). “Make it easy for the body by giving it what it needs and not making it work harder than it has to processing nutrients it can’t use at that moment.”
In other words, shortly before and during competition, the body needs simple sugars and not much else. Kim Schwabenbauer, who is also a RD and CSSD, said in the same article that “athletes should especially steer clear of fat and fiber since both can slow the process of your body converting carbohydrates to fuel.”
Schwabenbauer suggested in the story to choose a bar with less than eight grams of fat and two grams of fiber, and something with 50 to 200 milligrams of sodium. If you’re in an event that has you constantly moving and lasting longer than 90 minutes, you’ll need 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour.
If you choose a bar that has caffeine, make sure to experiment with it during a training session. Rule No. 1: Never try anything new on the day of the competition. The last thing you want is some gastrointestinal distress that could’ve easily been avoided had you experimented with the bar a couple of times beforehand.
Immediately after a hard workout, it’s important to refuel with carbs and protein, preferably by a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio. So if you’re a 145-pound athlete, eat 72 grams of carbs and around 18 grams of protein. In the hours after competition, bars that are higher in fat and fiber are ideal.
Kristen Chang, another RD and CSSD who was quoted in the article, said: “While the delayed gastric emptying effect of fiber and fat blunts performance during intense activity, it helps keep you feeling satisfied and full throughout the rest of the day. And steering clear of simple sugars helps to prevent unhealthy spikes in blood sugar, which are caused by ingesting lots of simple sugars when the body isn’t rapidly using them (i.e., when you aren’t exercising).”  
When it comes to ingredients, less is more. The best bars have a small ingredient list, and you only want the very best bars if you can’t eat real whole foods in the hours after a workout or competition. In that case, go with bars that have wholesome ingredients, including nuts, fruits (without added sugar or concentrate) and rolled oats.
Stay away from added sugars—Chang recommends to avoid anything that has more grams of sugar than protein—and your body will be primed to perform and recover at its very best.
Emanuel Lee is sports editor of the Free Lance and writes a health column for the Lifestyles section.