I have used various fueling techniques over the years but it is often difficult to find out what works for you as everyone is unique. Energy gels, solid bars and soluble powders don’t always agree with everyone, with some people feeling nauseous or worse, making you rush for the nearest toilet or bush. While some people simply just hate that sickly sweet taste!
While many athletes can happily use gels to keep their carb stores topped up during endurance training and races, there are some who just don’t get on with them and often seek out alternative options.
I am no expert in sports nutrition but much of the research will tell you that you need to consume around 60g of carbohydrate per hour to optimise your race performance. Athletes have a limited capacity to store carbohydrate as glycogen in our muscles, which is converted into glucose and fuels your muscles. Typically, it is advised that extra carbohydrate is required during races lasting more than 90 minutes preventing you from ‘bonking’ or ‘hitting the wall’.
The alternative to gels can be varied but this review will examine energy sweets/chews which can offer something different. Energy sweets make it easy to monitor your carb intake whilst being really tasty. They don’t take as much chewing as a bar, but are far less effort to take in than a gel, plus you avoid getting sticky hands. This review will look at 4 of the leading brands in the UK;
Jelly beans wouldn’t be my normal ‘go to’ for an energy fix but Jelly Belly’s Sport Beans are a convenient option to consider. They come in a small bag which contains circa 13 beans (28g) and can easily be stored in a pocket or sports bra (so I am told). The only downside for me is that they don’t fit into a race belt (unless it has a pocket) which is my preferred storage for race day. The pack is easy enough to open on the move but once open it can’t be resealed. Although wee in stature the jelly beans do contain a small amount of electrolytes, with some flavours containing caffeine for that extra energy boost.
Each pack of Sport Beans contains 25g carbs, of which 76 per cent are sugars, making them ideal portable carbs to aid in maintaining blood sugar levels and allowing longer exercise. A good thing about the beans is that there’s no artificial sweeteners, however they contain some E numbers which I would prefer to avoid where possible. Each pack is designed to give you roughly an hour’s worth of energy but it doesn’t feel substantial enough for me.
Nutrition score per serving (13 beans): 100 calories, 25g carbs, 80mg sodium, 40mg potassium 50mg caffeine
GU Energy Chews are fundamentally the sweet/candy equivalent of GU’s well-recognised Energy Gels. Some people really don’t get on with GU’s energy gels because of their thick consistency but I have always enjoyed GU’s flavours. These semi-solid sweets are easy to chew on the move and the package is easy to open. Again like the Sport Beans, once the package is open, there is no easy way to reseal them, although now come a pack similar to Clif Bloks (see next article).
The fuel comes courtesy of a combination of cane sugar, tapioca syrup and maltodextrin which is common in most products across the energy gel/sweet market. The combined carb source provides a fairly flat delivery of energy without any noticeable crash, with the advice during sustained exercise, being to consume a 30g sachet (4 chews) every 45minutes.
You’ll find 50mg of sodium per 30g of chews and 40mg potassium across the GU Energy Chew options; these additions are designed to help balance body salts lost through sweat. Ideally of course you might look to replace a wider spectrum of lost salts, but as sodium and potassium are the primary losses these are a solid place to start.
Flavours are varied and one of GU’s secret weapons. These include Strawberry, Orange, Blueberry & Pomegranate, Watermelon, Raspberry and the weird but actually tasty Salted Caramel Apple. Caffeine options are available in the Strawberry (20mg), Salted Caramel Apple (20mg) and Raspberry (40mg).
Nutrition score per serving (30g pack): 90kcal with 23g of carbs (11g of which are sugars)
Clif have a solid pedigree in the sports energy market and their Clif Bloks (formally Shot Bloks) are well established as an alternative to gels. Each pack has 6 ‘cubes’/bloks which have a soft consistency but firm to the touch (like a wine gum that’s been in a hot car). This ensures that chewing and digestion is easy on the move.
Each blok is 33 calories making it easy to track caloric and electrolyte (50mg of sodium and 20mg of potassium) intake during long outings and races. Some flavours offer increased caffeine content with 25 or 50mg per serving. The carb hit is big for half a pack (24g) which keeps you going through long runs and rides. The good thing is that each blok contains mainly natural ingredients which should help keep your tummy happy.
They come in small packs, similar in size and shape to an energy gel or chocolate bar which can be easily attached to a race belt (see my comment above) until you get to the last couple. My top tip is to cut open the top before you start so it is easy to push the blok out
Flavours include Black Cherry, Citrus, Cran-Razz, Margarita, Tropical Punch, Strawberry, Orange, Mountain Berry
Nutrition score per serving (3 pieces ½ pack): 100 calories, 24g carbs (12g sugars), 70mg sodium, 20mg potassium
PowerBar is a long-standing sports nutrition brand, partnering with Ironman so is familiar within the world of triathlon. Often many triathletes will test Powerbar products in training so they aren’t caught out on race day when reaching for a complimentary gel. Their product range is varied and does include their Powergel Shots. These sweets are similar in consistency to Clif Bloks and GU’s Chews so they are easily chewed and swallowed. You get nine in a pack although actually getting them out of the packet can be fiddly on the move, and the packet can’t be resealed afterwards. What I like about these shots over the others tested is the liquid centre which added a different texture to the experience.
The main ingredients include glucose syrup, sugar and water which come in two flavours (orange, and cola which contains caffeine).
A packet will contain nine Shots weighing in 60g, so a little over 6g per Shot, and provides just over 200kcal in the form of 48g of carb and 4g of protein. There’s also a dash of fat and salt for good measure.
I am a fan of these shots, especially the liquid centre. It is a shame that more flavours aren’t available and they generally tend to be less available in my local supermarket/supplement shop.
Nutrition score per serving (60g pack): 210 calories, 48g carbs (36g sugars), 0.1g salt, 75mg caffeine
Energy sweets are generally more expensive when compared on a blunt carbs-per-quid basis against a single gel. However, if you struggle to take in gels on the move, then energy sweets may be an option for you. I would happily use all four sweets reviewed but personally I am a huge fan of Clif’s Bloks because they fit neatly onto a race belt, and are available in my local supermarket (Tesco). I also found the Powerbar Powergel Shots easy to consume and I’m a fan of the liquid centre (sorry to go on about this).
I regularly use energy sweets but normally in fuelling strategies that include a mixture of gels, sweets and bananas. As I always write in my blogs/reviews, triathlon can be very individual so please ensure you test any new product or fuelling strategy during training, not during races.
Hope this review helps.