On-the-Bike Nutrition Roundup

Over the last 7 years of riding, I’ve used a large variety of on-the-bike nutrition.  There are few aspects of bicycle racing that are more personal than nutrition (I think of saddle choice, for example), but I wanted to throw out my feelings on these various products in one big post so that new riders (or people looking to try a new product) have something to reference.  Note that almost all of this is just my opinion and may have no basis in fact — especially in terms of performance improvement.

The good folks at Clif make all kinds of products.  There is always the famous Clif Bar, but  they also produce the Clif Shot line of products (gels, drinks and chews) along with a handful of other types of bars.  In general, I love the Clif products.  Allow me to run through their offerings along with some basic thoughts on each.

  • Clif Bars.  The first energy bar I ever had that showed that they could actually be tasty.  Prior to the Clif Bar, I had only really eaten PowerBars.  While those were effective, they were often hard to stomach (and chew, for that matter).  Clif Bars come in a wide variety of flavors, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to find one you like.  My personal favorite is the Cool Mint Chocolate.
  • Clif Shot Energy Drink. Part of what I like about Clif products in general is that they are made from organic sources.  “Organic” can be a meaningless buzzword, but it can also be a really meaningful quality.  The Clif Shot electrolyte drinks are still highly organic, which gives me the impression I’m eating “real food”, not something that has been grown in a lab.  The Shot drinks tend to be a little sweeter than other options, but have always settled well for me. I usually get the Cran-Razz flavor, but the Lemonade is pretty good.
  • Clif Shot Energy Gels. A few years ago, I rode on the Gu Cleanup Cru during the Chequamegon 40. For three hours, I picked up the tabs from the top of Gu packets that 800 racers deposited on the Cheq40 course. The Clif Shot packets come with a “Litter Leash” so that ripping off the top leaves that little tab still attached to the package.  It’s hard for me to express just how much I love that feature.  The gels themselves tend to have a mild flavor and a relatively thick consistency, fairly similar to Gu.  Shot gels have always been easy on my stomach.  The new formulation seems to be a little smoother and digests even a little easier for me.  The Chocolate flavor is good and the Razz is tremendously good, but I don’t care a lot for the Mocha flavor.  That probably just goes back to the fact I don’t like coffee in general.
  • Clif Shot Bloks.  Really, these were the first chews I tried.  The flavors are similar to the Shot gels and the consistency is pretty chewy.  The new sleeve packaging is very handy (can you call that packaging “new” anymore?).  I don’t find chews to be particularly useful for me though, unless it’s pre-race or pre-ride nutrition.  On the bike, the chews are just too hard to get down — that’s when you can get them out of the package in the first place.  They’re okay, but I prefer the gels.
  • Mojo, C Bars, zBars and Crunch bars. I could eat these all day.  The Mojo bars are great snacks.  C Bars are simple, healthy and delicious bars that are clearly recognizable as “real food”.  The Crunch bars put Nature Valley granola bars to shame, both in terms of taste and texture.  No breaking teeth here!
It should come as no surprise that I buy Clif products all the time.  I like their food philosophy, I like their food products, and I like that one of the owners is named “Kit”. Sure, she’s a woman, but it’s cool all the same.

I’ve only really tried one product in one flavor from the Accelerade people, but it will almost certainly be the only product I try.  It’s the good old Orange Accelerade, with their 4:1 protein ratio (or whatever).  The taste is fairly palatable, but the texture is pretty tough.  It doesn’t seem to matter how much you shake, stir or swish, because there is always some undissolved powder in each sip (and clinging in a film to the inside of your bottle).  This stuff seems bent on defeating the taste-blocking technology of the Specialized Purist bottles I’ve been using.  On normal rides, it hasn’t bothered my stomach, but I struggled with some minor GI distress during a race a while back.  I haven’t tried the AccelGel or Endurox products, but I don’t plan to either.  In short, not a fan.

G-Series Pro
I am a regular FRS user and have tried to make a point of getting it locally whenever I can.  Up here, this generally means going to GNC. GNC also happens to be one of the only places supplied with the G-Series Pro products from Gatorade.  I’ve used a handful of these products and have been mostly pleased with them.  They are competitively priced and I liked having the local availability (something that isn’t true of most of the Clif products).

  • 02 Perform Powder. This stuff is WAY sweet, almost offensively so.  I used it for the first time in a 55-mile road race and it didn’t bother my stomach at all, but almost every drink of this had to be tempered with a drink of plain water.  If you like your beverages with a lot of sweetness, this is your drink.  I finished up my tub but won’t be buying another.
  • 01 Prime Bars and Drinks. The Prime bars are examples of everything that Clif Bars are not. They’re not overly tasty, they have an exceedingly adequate texture.  On the other hand, they seem to get the job done. The Prime drinks are even sweeter than the regular electrolyte drinks, but they go down quickly and seem to really prime your system before a race.  I’ve never had them bother my stomach, but they can be hard to get down due to that overwhelming sweetness. It’s almost like drinking syrup.  If you don’t want to use a gel or a chew before a race or ride, the Prime drink is a pretty good option.  I wouldn’t bother with the bars though.
  • 03 Recovery Shakes. I don’t know what to think about “recovery” beverages in general.  The first one I used was from PowerBar, but I’m not sure I ever worked out hard enough to make it necessary.  The folks at Carmichael Training Systems will insist you need to replenish the energy supplies you consumed during the effort, but I’ve never really been 100% convinced of all that.  That doesn’t mean I wasn’t willing to try these G-Series Recovery shakes.  They’re quite good tasting and are really more like a chocolate milk texture rather than what I would normally call a “shake”.  Does it really aid in recovery? I don’t know.  When I worry about recovery, I tend to turn to FRS and POM Wonderful pomegranate juice. These shakes aren’t as good tasting as either of those options.
I’m generally a big fan of Gu products.  In my mind, they are the standard by which everything else is judged.  I’m not saying they’re the best, just the standard. There’s a reason that people will generically refer to energy gels as “Gu”. My short review is: You can never go wrong with Gu.  If you want more detail, read on.
  • Gu gels. As I mentioned, the standard in energy gels. Relatively thick texture, lots of flavors to choose from.  Never rough on your stomach, always easy to go down. I’m not sure the Roctane gels are necessarily that much better than “standard” Gu, but I like to use them to prime the pump before a race.  Blueberry Pomegranate is yummy. If there’s any downside to Gu, it feels more artificial that a lot of other products.  Somehow, it feels more like it came out of a factory than out of the ground.
  • Gu Brew. This electrolyte drink has a light, crisp flavor. Has never bothered my stomach.  It mixes up well in the bottle and doesn’t leave any kind of film or taste in your bottle. They have a variety of flavors, but I’ve mostly used the Raspberry.  I’ve never tried the Recovery Brew or the tablets, but I have a feeling I would like them.
Gu also has their own chews, called “Chomps”. They look pretty reasonable, but suffer from all the same shortcomings of any other chews.  I’ve never tried them, and probably won’t.
Honey Stinger is riding a wave of publicity right now.  With Lance Armstrong coming on board, the Radio Shack team using them as the exclusive nutrition supplier and a glut of sponsorships, they are doing well for being a newcomer to the scene.  I generally think it’s for a good reason — really good-tasting and effective products.  Obviously the key to their whole product line is honey, so if you’re not a honey person, you should just skip to the next section.
  • Honey Stinger Gels. These are easy to open and easy to squeeze down, even on a rough mountain bike course.  The texture is very smooth and much thinner than most other gels I’ve tried.  In all of the flavors the distinct honey taste is present, which is clearly going to be a deal-sealer for some and a deal-breaker for others.  These are what I have in my cupboard right now, but only the Gold, Chocolate and Ginsting flavors.  I find the Banana to be completely awful, but I generally dislike artificial banana flavoring.  The Strawberry flavor is okay, but can occasionally remind you of the cough syrup you had as a kid. A friend of mine who is a beekeeper tells me that honey is an incredibly good food, because your body can use pretty much all of it for energy and that it is quick and easy to digest.  I think, in this case, that works in Honey Stinger’s favor.
  • Stinger Waffles. These might be some of the most delicious food on the planet. I don’t know if they’re great for energy or not, but I could eat them until I was stuffed.  For something that is more bar-like than gel-like, it doesn’t have very many calories.  I would bet it hits your bloodstream faster than an energy bar though.  Both the Vanilla and original Honey flavors are delicious, though I’d give a slight nod to Vanilla.
  • Other Honey Stinger bars. These are okay at best.  Like the PowerBars and G-Serier Pro bars, they tend to be stiff, chewy and not quite as appetizing as Clif Bars. Probably not worth it unless you can’t find anything else.
  • Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews.  Just like the Gu Chomps and Clif Shot Bloks, these are chewable versions of the gels.  I’ve found that the packages open a little better and the chews themselves are a little softer, so they go down easier.  The Fruit Smoothie flavor is pretty good, as is the Pomegranate Passion.  The Cherry Blossom flavor tastes like cough syrup and I can’t stand it.  (My wife loves it though.)
I don’t think I have anything I can really say that’s positive about Hammer products. This seems to make me really unique in my neck of the woods. Hammer is a sponsor of a number of our races and most of the riders up here have HEED in their bottles and Hammer Gels in their pockets. I’m glad it works for them, but I really can’t stand any of it.
  • Hammer Gels. I find these to be really thick and to have a really poorly shaped package. I mean, I get the whole “hammer” thing at the top, but if you rip the package there, you don’t get anything.  It’s just extra (and frankly) wasteful packaging.  The Raspberry flavor is pretty good, but the other flavors I’ve tried are pretty horrible.  They also disagree with my stomach if I drink any other kind of energy drink after eating a Hammer Gel.  (I have heard that Hammer discourages mixing simple carbs from other gels/drinks with their products.)
  • HEED. This is the most horrible product I’ve ever used on a bike. Every flavor I’ve ever tried is completely unpalatable.  If I can get it down, it upsets my stomach. I know there are people who swear by this stuff, but I just swear at it.  I once went on a ride with nothing but a sample of strawberry HEED. I came back completely dehydrated because I couldn’t possibly drink it. I cannot more strongly advocate NOT using a product.
  • Endurolytes. These I was not completely disillusioned with.  Simple electrolyte capsules.  If you can swallow them during your effort, you get a quick shot of what your body needs without any calories.  I’ve found that I prefer to have my electrolytes in my bottle with a nice crisp flavor though, and prefer something like Nuun.
The people at Cytomax make some really strong claims about their product.  “Cytomax lowers acid in muscles, which prevents burning and cramping during training and helps reduce soreness and speed recovery.”  I don’t think I necessarily experienced that when I used it.  It also had a slightly odd taste and sometimes – though not always – made my stomach just a bit “off”. My main problem with Cytomax isn’t the actual product, but its availability.  Around here, I can only ever get single-serving packets and I really want to get big tubs of whatever I’m using.  I can imagine using Cytomax more regularly if it were easier to find.  The “Go Grape” flavor is pretty palatable, as is the “Tangy Orange”.  I haven’t tried the others.
On a side note, the CytoSport website is awful.
Amino Vital is a product I wish was easier to get.  I was first introduced to it at the Ore to Shore Mountain Bike Epic in Marquette.  They had ready-to-drink bottles in the swag bag.  The next year, they also included some of the gel packets — which are apparently no longer available.  That’s too bad, because the gels were pretty good.  It’s the only time I’ve ever really liked an apple-flavored gel.  It was a little weird that they suggested refrigerating the gels.  The drink, as I recall, had a light and crisp flavor.  It did seem to be really good fuel too.  The biggest problem is cost.  The last time I bought it I had to go through Performance Bike and it was still more expensive than most other products.  Even now that they sell it directly through their website, it costs $40 for a 20-serving canister.  Yikes.  The benefits certainly don’t justify that price.
Nuun and I have a bit of a strange relationship.  Based on some really positive reviews, I stopped by the shop and grabbed a tube of the Kona Cola.  The reviews said Nuun (in general) was light-tasting and never upset anyone’s stomach.  I nearly threw up the first ride with the Kona Cola.  I also lost the top to one of my beloved Camelbak bottles because I left it loosely screwed on so that the carbonation from the Nuun fizz could dissipate.  I didn’t even really like the way it tasted, since it reminded me of drinking the last remnants of pop from a glass where all the ice has melted.  It was flat and watered-down but kinda tasted like Coke.  I nearly threw the rest of the tube away.  But the relentless enthusiasm for the product from other people made me pick up a little single-serving tablet of the Tri-Berry.  That flavor didn’t bother my stomach and actually tasted quite good.  This hit-or-miss relationship makes me a little hesitant to try any other flavors and more likely to try to the new Gu version of these tablets.  I really like Nuun and Gatorade Propel powder for rides on the trainer during the winter when I’m trying to lose weight, because they hydrate without calories.  One of the other small complaints I have about all of these products is that they are so inflexible on quantity.  A Nuun tablet is for 16 ounces of water.  You can use 1.5 tablets for a 24 oz. bottle or you can have a partially empty 20 oz. bottle.  Kind of irritating.
I have to confess that I don’t really pay much attention to PowerBar anymore.  It’s very easy to overlook their lineup when most of it is available in  your average gas station mini-mart.  Their original energy bars may have been revolutionary at the time, but now they seem behind the times.  (I do have to confess to loving the Fruit Smoothie Berry Blast bar.)  The other various bars (Nut Naturals, Harvest, Triple Threat and so on) all smack of generic, mass-produced anonymity.  The C2 Max formula that permeates the energy products (the bars, drinks and gels) seems well-researched and substantiated, but not enough of a differentiator from any other product.  I don’t know that the new Ironman drink series is similar at all the the drinks I used to have.  If so, they are relatively sweet but never off-putting.    One product they have that is quite intriguing is the Beta Alanine supplement.  There’s a PDF describing the effects of Beta Alanine supplements and studies supporting their claims that I downloaded but have not yet read through.  Besides the availability at any corner store, the low price of PowerBar products is pretty appealing.
Who doesn’t love jelly beans?  There’s a reason why the Jelly Belly team bus is swamped at every race they go to.  Sport Beans are delicious and effective.  They come in a wide variety of flavors (all of which are good) and they come in a useful, resealable package.  The “Extreme” versions come in two of my least favorite flavors (watermelon and cherry), but come packed with some extra goodies to get you moving.  The only real downside to Sport Beans is that they are, unsurprisingly, jelly beans.  This makes them even chewier than most energy chews.  On the road this might not be a big deal, but on the trail they are impossible to eat.  They are usually priced competitively, if you can find them.
So what?  If you’re a brand-loyalist like me, and want one supplier for all of your nutrition needs, I would recommend Clif or Gu. It just depends on whether you want some sense that these highly-processed foodstuffs were, at one time, real food.  If you like that idea, you should go for Clif.  If you think the lab can create a superior performance food, go for Gu.  If you’re willing to pick and choose a bit, add in Honey Stinger Gels and Waffles. But of course, use what works for you and what settles well in your stomach.

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