Assorted Energy Mars And Gels - Clif, Torq, Mule and Sesh
Until recently climbing had pretty much always been my sport of choice. I would still classify myself as a climber, but for most of this year I have been doing more running than anything else. Whereas with climbing a banana and some malt loaf from time to time throughout the day would keep me fuelled and ready for the next pitch, running has turned out to be an entirely different game. I soon realised that I would need to start taking my nutrition and calorie intake a little more seriously. I'm not at the stage where I'm reading books on the matter and planning my meals, so I needed the next best thing - ready access to a practical solution. So I approached a few of the different manufacturers of energy bars and gels. There are quite a few out there, but here are a selection of the ones I have been using over the summer, along with my thoughts.
Clif provided probably the widest range of products, namely bars, shots / gels, and Bloks. The Bloks I had tried before, at many an outdoor event like the Kendal Mountain Festival, where they are often given away as free tasters (working at Kendal for a couple of years the steady supply of Bloks had kept me going for the very long hours, a small dose of easily chewable sugared caffeine doing the trick nicely). The Bloks are essentially like a packet of sweets, 6 cubes of jellied caffeine and carbs. Clif recommend that you eat them both before and during exercise. I used them exclusively during exercise as they were one of the products that were easy to chew and swallow whilst on the move. If running hard I’d tend to clamp them between my back teeth, taking a chew every few steps. If running less intensively they were easy enough to chew. My one complaint was that opening the packet with sweaty hands, or in the rain, was at times very tricky. The plastic wrapper is very tough which is great in that it means no leakage in your bum bag, but could be tough to open whilst on the move. Clif’s Shots (gels) were similar to the Bloks. Easier to take on than the shots, but a little more difficult to get into your mouth when moving. Once again I struggled to get them open with wet hands. I do like the fact that the foil packets have a hole in them which allows you to attach them to a belt or lanyard, though I didn’t actually use this. There’s a wide range of flavours, and I didn’t find any that weren’t palatable, though I wasn’t keen on the double espresso, but then I don’t like coffee! The biggest question of all – did they work? Yes they did. After a bit of experimentation I found that taking on board a shot a few minutes before a big climb, along with a few mouths full of water to help rinse it down, would definitely give me a boost for the climb. Of all the products on test I’d say that these were my favourite. Clif also provided some of their energy bars. I’d eat one of these half an hour or so before a run as recommended (they are also recommended to be eaten during low intensity exercise – I find eating anything chewy whilst actually running, even slowly, very difficult indeed, or afterwards). Whilst the taste good and did the trick I preferred some of the other bars on the basis that I am a big guy and these are a little on the small side. Maybe it’s psychological, but the bigger bars certainly gave me more of a pre-run boost.
A friend of mine is on the British Duathlon team and uses Torq products. He’s just written a book on training for marathons and is pretty knowledgeable on such things as nutrition so I take it seriously that he has chosen Torq. They supplied a selection of flavoured Bars and Gels. All were very tasty I have to say – there wasn’t a single one that I didn’t like. The gel packets were once again tricky to open with wet hands (must ask Nik what his tips are!), and needed a good few swallows of water to ease down the viscous stuff (I made the mistake of taking one on during a fast race and didn’t ship any water with it, and really suffered with a gummed up mouth for the next mile until I realised I needed a drink. Obvious stuff in hindsight, but not so obvious in the heat of the moment!). I particularly like the fact that Torq use Fair-Trade fruit in their products and even have fully organic options. Torq supplied a useful booklet with the bars and gels which makes for interesting reading and really gets down to the nitty gritty of what you should take on board before, during and after your runs, detailing formulae incorporating your body weight, grams of carbohydrate etc. At the stage I’m at at the moment I’m definitely more of a casual runner, and need basic rules.
Basic rules is what I need, and basic rules is what Mule Bar provided with their gels and bars. The pamphlet that came with them details exactly what they think you should take and when. Whilst I have just said that I like this approach I am also a cynic and a part of me will always think of stuff like this as marketing spiel to try to get you to buy more of their products. That said, I have been using their guidelines as a rule of thumb across the range of bars and gels that I have been testing, and it has been working, so perhaps I should be less cynical and just accept the fact that unless I am willing to spend time in the kitchen making my own power flapjacks then this is the route I need to take, and there is a cost associated with it. I’d say that the Mule gels, called Kicks, were the easiest to open of the range I tested. Once again I couldn’t fault the flavours. I did however take objection to the liquorice bars that I ate. Not my thing at all, and illustrated the point nicely that you need to enjoy what you are eating if only for the psychological benefit it empowers you with. As with the Clif and Torq gels these needed some water to help wash them down. A fair point made by the guys at Mule once this review is that their producst are also organic and Fairtrade. Sorry guys, shoudl have pointed that out in the first place.
Last but not least was a less commonly known provider called Sesh. They only sent me one product, a chocolaty energy bar, and a box of them at that. However it was my favourite bar of the lot. I have a sweet tooth, and preferred the chocolate outer and the sugary crunch to some of the more wholesome tasting fruit based bars. They were also the largest bars. I think it’s important not to underestimate the psychological factors at play here. I have a large appetite and a sweet tooth, therefore a large sweet bar is clearly going to cut the mustard over a small, less sweet one. What I am saying is, experiment, find your favourite flavours, textures, sizes and modes (gels, bars, sweets) and stick with them. I am working on the assumption that the four companies who sent me products have each put research into what goes into their products, and the benefits of eating and drinking them are similar, so it’s down to the practicalities. It would be very interesting to run a more scientific comparative study across the range of products, but that would require a lot more time, products and people! The one thing I haven’t covered is the cost of these products. Basically they aren’t cheap. If cheap is your thing then you may well be better off making your own super flapjacks and sticking to a post-race milkshake, but if, like me, you prefer the easy option then you need to pay for it. Using Amazon as a guide here are some basic prices to compare:
Clif Bloks - £3.48 or £34.43 for 18 (£1.91 each)
Clif Gel - £31.20 for 24 (£1.30 each)
Clif Bar - £1.39 or £25.74 for 24 (£1.08 each)
Torq Bar - £1.45 or £31.32 for 24 (£1.30 each)
Torq Gel - £1.50 or £23.98 for 20 (£1.19 each)
Mule Bar - £1.50
Mule Gel (Kick) - £2.50
Sesh Bar - £14.99 for 12 (£1.25 each)
I am sure you can find better prices by shopping around, but the above at least gives you a basic comparison chart.
Thanks to Clif, Torq, Mule and Sesh for providing the samples.
UPDATE. A friend of mine who is a nutrition specialist and also a keen endurance runner has just emailed me with the following very good point:
I think it's worth pointing out for the readers that you don't need any bars/gels on runs shorter than one hour, providing you have eaten proper meals as your glycogen stores will see you through. So don't spend your money unless you are into longer endurance jaunts!