One of the most thrilling aspects of an obstacle race is the way the charged atmosphere primes your body for combat on the course. Raucous crowds cheer as competitors line up, fire-based obstacles spew smoke, and the smell of sweat, mud, and grass brews up a potent potion that delivers a burst of adrenaline. But the thing with a rush like that is it fades quickly, leaving you with your body as it is—one that is hopefully trained properly and fed liberally with nutritious, energy-giving food.
The Nutrition Bar Advantage
Thankfully, these days Spartans can get quick and long-lasting energy with wholesome ingredients from convenient-to-eat nutrition bars, no matter your need—be it before a race, after a race, or just while noshing on the couch. Nutrition bars (also named protein bars, granola bars, snack bars, breakfast bars, and meal bars) have come a long way from the dense, unappetizing rectangles of decades ago that tasted like chewy sawdust.
With so many bars available, it can be hard to figure out what kind you should be eating and when. A solid move, whenever you intend to eat one: Scan the ingredients list for those you recognize. Think: Nuts, seeds or whole grains vs a mishmosh of chemicals you can’t decipher let alone pronounce. “Look for whole ingredients, which bring inherent nutrition, nutrition as mother nature intended,” says Julie Salmen, M.S., R.D.N., a nutritionist with whole-grain focused food brand Kashi. “The better the fuel, the better your body will work for you.”
Beware, calorie-fat-and-sugar-bombs disguised in virtuous packaging. Salmen says to eyeball the balance between calories and nutrition. “When selecting a bar, look at the make-up: Is it all fat? All protein? All sugar? Or, does it have a healthy balance of calories from protein and fats and complex carbs to support an active life?” A balanced bar’s macros would look something like around 12 grams of protein, 6 grams of fiber, 12 grams of fat, 18 grams of carbs, sugar grams in the single digits, and around 220 calories, which matches the nutrition profile of Kashi’s new GO protein bars.
Best Nutrition Bars: What to Eat, When
A balanced bar can fit into any time of the day, but look for specific macros and calories to tailor your treat to when you’ll be eating it, including as race-day fuel. Remember, everyone’s physiology is unique. “Your body will tell you when you need more, less or something different in a nutrition bar,” says Salmen. “It will tell you if a nutrition bar eaten before a race or as a snack makes you feel energized or slows you down.” So while following these general guidelines, pay attention to how you feel for your best solution.
If you’re training hard and eating three meals a day and a few snacks, you should consume around 500 calories at breakfast, says Salmen. Nutrition bars, including those marketed as breakfast bars, often deliver between 200 to 300 calories. “To round out your breakfast, eat a serving of fruit or vegetables with your favorite nutrition bar. Beyond calories, make sure your bar of choice in the morning has both protein—10g or more—and fiber—5g or more—and other essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals.”
A right-sized snack that keeps you humming until your next meal delivers around 200 to 250 calories. Look for a nutrition bar that provides 3 or more grams of fiber and 5 or more grams of protein.
“Thirty minutes to an hour before a training session, eat a bar that has protein, a little fat, and easy-to-digest carbohydrates instead of complex carbohydrates,” says Salmen. “Save the complex carbohydrates for your meals two to four hours before a workout.” Exercise in the early morn? Eat half a bar to avoid feeling too full during your workout.
Staying hydrated and eating well throughout the day is more important than what you eat around your workouts. Don’t overdo it with high-calorie bars just to get protein into your diet, says Salmen. “You are likely getting enough protein at meals—most of us are eating more protein than is recommended.” Try a bar with protein and carbs and see if it gives you the energy to power through.
“You want to rely on the foods that you make you feel energized and ready to go,” says Salmen. “Don’t add any new foods, including new bars, to your routine the night before or day of the race.” The bar you found for your training sessions won’t fail you now.
“No specific snack is necessary if you are eating a balanced diet,” says Salmen. “If you’re hungry and want a nutrition bar, look for one with protein to support muscle repair and carbohydrates for refueling. Hydration is also key.”
If you feel like eating after a race, go for a nutrition bar with at least 10 grams of protein and carbs, Salmen says. “This will boost your energy, rebuild glycogen stores and repair damaged muscle tissue.” Kashi’s GO protein bars are nicely balanced with 12 grams of plant-based protein, 18 to 20 grams of carbs and just 6 grams of sugar. Look out for the new Dark Chocolate and Peanut Butter flavor, if you like a salty-sweet post-finish line treat.