When I first got involved in triathlon training, I was introduced to the world of energy gels and bars. These are items made up of mostly simple sugar and they serve to replenish depleted carbohydrate stores during extended exercise. At that time I was more interested in performance so, as they did their intended job, I did not give a second thought to what was actually in them.
As I am now trying to follow a more whole foods-based diet, when I began training for a 100km cycle ride I started to experiment with different foods for fuel. My staple had become a couple of Medjool dates which sustained me for shorter rides of under 50km. However, as my distances increased, I found I needed a little more of a boost.
What are the advantages of energy gels?
As the human body can only store a limited amount of energy and the body’s stores will be almost depleted after about 90 minutes of continuous activity, gels are a convenient source of energy. They are easily portable and are designed to quickly deliver just the right blend of carbohydrates, calories, electrolytes, and vitamins in an easily digestible form.
What are the disadvantages of energy gels?
Even though they are engineered specifically for performance, gels are lab crafted, processed, and artificially flavored food. They are basically concentrated energy drinks and can interfere with hydration and, in some cases, decrease performance if not taken with sufficient plain water.
Gels are also relatively expensive per use and some people do find that they can cause an upset stomach including bloating, cramping, nausea and diarrhea.
Are there alternatives to processed energy supplements?
If you prefer a more natural source of energy or want to make your own supplements, whole-food solutions can provide the nutrition required for endurance efforts. They can be portable, easy to eat, naturally full of water, and provide plenty of good fuel.
The first “home-made fuel” I used was a mix of recipes from Deliciously Ella‘s app and the Minimalist Baker. I made a half quantity of the suggested recipe and this provided me with 12 balls at about 100 calories each. Although the recipes suggest rolling the bites in coconut, when I am taking them on a ride, I found them much easier to handle if they are left plain.
Mango and Date Energy Bites
These bites are gluten free and offer a little fiber, protein, healthy fat, and natural sugars for an energy boost. As mentioned in Desserts with Benefits: Chocolate Avocado Mousse, Medjool dates add a caramel like sweetness as well as help to bind the mixture. The cashews contribute healthy fats and protein and the coconut will counteract inflammation.
- ½ cup (60g) dried mango
- 6 (110g) Medjool dates
- ½ cup (80g) cashews
- ½ cup (35g) desiccated coconut
- 2tbs hemp seeds or
- 1tbs hemp seeds and 1tbs of nut butter
- zest of 1 lime
- ½ tsp salt
- Preheat oven to 350 F (176 C) and roast cashews on baking sheet for about 12 – 15 mins or until light golden brown and fragrant.
- Blend cashews in food processor until a fine flour forms and then transfer to separate bowl.
- Blend mango and dates until sticky dough forms (these can be soaked beforehand for about 5 minutes in warm water to make them blend more easily but ensure to pat off excess moisture before blending).
- Add nuts, hemp seeds and/or nut butter, shredded coconut, lime zest, salt and blend until mixture sticks together.
- If dough feels too sticky or wet, add more coconut or hemp seed and if too dry, add more dates.
- Scoop out desired amount and roll balls and coat with coconut or hemp seeds if desired.
Most energy balls are fairly simple to throw together, extremely versatile with ingredients, and are much more economical than processed gels. They will keep in the fridge for a few days but can also be made in bulk and kept in the freezer for up to a month.
As with everything made from scratch, one of the greatest advantages is that you control exactly what goes into them. For me, this is especially important when selecting sustenance for endurance activities.
The Mango and Date Bites have worked well for my cycling training which is relatively low intensity. For more intense activities such as running continuously for longer distances, I feel these would be less suitable in terms of digestion. However, I have found they do work for me on long hikes or even during “my style” of trail running which tends to include a mixture of running and walking.
The bites are not super sweet so they don’t become sickly if eating several during a few hours of activity. However, they are definitely sweet enough to be consumed outside of training as a healthy snack or pick-me-up in the middle of the afternoon. Although these have worked perfectly for what I was looking for, I hope to experiment with some more home-made fuels to add some variety for the long miles still ahead!
If you make these energy bites, I would love to know your experience and if you enjoyed this article, please like and feel free to share with friends.