(5 min read)
When you’re trying to improve your sporting performance, what you eat between breakfast, lunch and dinner is just as important as your three square meals a day.
Whether you’re stocking up on energy before training, topping up reserves during it, or replenishing your drained body after a session, snacking smart will keep you ready to perform at your best.
But if you’re not sure what to nibble on to power your efforts, here’s our guide to the very best high-energy snacks to boost your performance.
The benefits of snacking-smart when you’re training hard
The right kind of energy foods help you fight fatigue during longer runs, rides & training efforts. They also ensure your body gets the nutrients it needs to recover after tough training sessions.
During any hard exercise that lasts for more than 90 minutes, your body’s energy stores deplete. Unless you have something to nibble on you’ll quickly find your performance drops off. Leave it long enough and you can start to feel dizzy and downright awful and if you’re going far enough you can also encounter the dreaded Wall (also known as “bonking”).
Snacking is a great way to ensure you get enough carbohydrates and protein to sustain your muscles, replenish your energy reserves and help you bounce back more efficiently between sessions. Particularly if you’re following a tough training plan.
This is even more important for serious amateur athletes who don’t have the luxury of resting in between training sessions like the pros do. When you’re battling busy days and working eight hours while preparing for a marathon or 100-mile cycle, you need a lot of sustenance to get you through the week.
Not to mention, when you schedule your training around your work, it tends to mean training happens really early in the morning, during lunches or in the evenings. You don’t want to eat a full meal before a run, ride or gym session, so a quick, go-to snack beforehand is vital to provide energy to get you through your workout.
Ingredients to look for in a good energy snack
There’s good news here. The stuff you need to get from snacks, tends to be found in the types of food we all want to eat more of anyway. That starts with carbohydrates.
Carbs: As the body’s main energy source during vigorous exercise, one of the key parts of planning out any long run or ride is scheduling in high-carb snacks at regular intervals to keep your fuel tank topped up.
It’s important to get both simple and complex carbs. The latter, which are found in foods like oats, sweet potatoes, brown bread, rice and pasta, take time to break down and release energy over a longer period than simple carbs. That’s why a bowl of porridge in the morning is the go-to breakfast for many athletes before a big training session or race.
Sugar: Once you’re on the move, however, you want simple carbs. You want sugar, in fact. It might be public enemy number one when it comes to health columns right now, but during intense exercise sugar is crucial to topping up your energy levels.
It’s quickly absorbed by the body to provide an energy boost that stops you from hitting the wall. But you don’t have to load up on synthetic snacks full of added sugar, there’s plenty of the sweet stuff to be found naturally in fruit, and bars made with fruit.
Protein: Another ingredient to look out for is protein, which is necessary to repair and rebuild muscles after a tough workout. People who train regularly have significantly higher protein requirements than those who live a sedentary lifestyle.
Smart snacks alongside protein-packed meals are essential to hit those levels, particularly if you don’t fancy downing supplement shakes.
Electrolytes: Finally, keep an eye out for electrolytes like sodium and potassium in your snacks. When you engage in sweaty activity you lose a lot of salts, which means rehydrating properly requires more than just water.
You can get electrolytes from sports drinks, hydration powders and salt tabs during exercise, but it’s always handy if your snacks – like the Veloforte Avanti bar – provide a top up too.
10 Best energy-boosting healthy snacks
The go-to option of all manner of top athletes and proof positive you don’t need to get too complicated with your snacks. A banana contains around 30g of carbs, naturally depending on the size of that banana, around half of which is sugars. They’re also high in potassium and magnesium, easy on the stomach and come with their own peelable packaging, so they’re simple to store in a pocket or bag and eat on the go.
2. Natural energy bars
Energy bars designed for endurance sports are the most convenient way to give your body what it needs during long runs and rides. But far too many of the options available are chock full of artificial ingredients. These are often fairly unpleasant to eat and, more significantly, can play havoc with your stomach, which is the last thing you want, particularly during a race.
All the natural bars in the Veloforte range provide the perfect balance of nutrients needed for you to perform at your best. They’re a whole lot tastier than synthetic options as well. They use energy sources like dried fruit and nuts to boost your energy levels in a way that lasts and won’t upset your stomach.
Different varieties provide different benefits, but nuts have a few common traits that make any kind a useful snack for athletes to have on hand.
Firstly, they’re high in protein, which means a handful of mixed nuts in the hours after a tough session can be useful in helping you provide your hard-worked muscles with the fuel they need to recover.
Nuts also contain high amounts of unsaturated fats – the good fats – which can lower levels of “bad” cholesterol. The fat and protein content also make nuts a filling snack that might deter you from reaching for junk food.
Beyond protein and unsaturated fats, what nuts offer in terms of dietary benefits varies from nut to nut. Almonds are high in vitamin E, which helps maintain healthy skin and bones, Brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium, important for thyroid function, and walnuts are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Watermelon is about the most refreshing snack you can reach for in the middle or just after an especially sweaty workout. It’s over 90 percent water, so helps with hydration especially as it also contains some useful electrolytes, and it also provides a solid sugar hit to boost energy.
Ok, so it’s not the most portable of running or cycling snacks but it is very easy to eat due to its melt-in-the-mouth texture and won’t upset the stomach.
5. Dried fruit
Dried fruit is easier to pack into a pocket or bag than regular fruit and also contains more sugar than its fresh counterpart. So it’s an even better snack for endurance athletes.
Despite being dried it also retains most of the vitamins and minerals in non-dried fruit, so a mixed handful will count towards your 5-a-day (only once though, you can’t get more than one portion of your 5-a-day from dried fruit). Dried fruit is also high in fibre and a major ingredient found in all Veloforte bars, providing a natural source of sugar to spur you on.
It’s not a food, and plenty of us use it to beat the afternoon slump, but caffeine can be a huge performance aid during exercise too. So it’s an ingredient worth looking out for in snacks like Veloforte’s Pronto bar.
While caffeine doesn’t provide a direct energy boost in the way sugar does, it helps with concentration and makes maintaining a high effort level feel easier – music to the ears of any long-distance athlete.
The effects of caffeine tend to be more noticeable in people who are less used to caffeine, so it might be worth skipping your morning coffee in the build-up to a race to get more of a boost on the day. That said, don’t make race day the first time you tuck into a caffeine snack, because people react differently to caffeine and it can induce tummy troubles (if you’d like to learn more, read our article on race day nutrition).
7. Nut butters
A spoonful of peanut butter has long been a favourite snack of keen gym-goers, who value the spread for its high protein content. Now that nut butters are available in single serving rip-top pouches that you can use on the move, they are becoming great options for running and cycling too. Those sachets are definitely easier to carry than full jars of the stuff.
Nut butter by itself provides that handy protein punch along with sugar and salt, but it’s also great to combine with a high-carb snack like a banana or some dried fruit to tick off all your sports nutrition needs in one go.
Berries are renowned for being rich in antioxidants, which is especially good news for athletes. Those antioxidants can reduce inflammation and soreness in your muscles, lessening the effects of the dreaded DOMS in the days after a hard training session. Berries are also a natural source of sugar and are high in fibre as well, and they also happen to be absolutely delicious and mightily refreshing.
However, while a handful of berries is easy to grab when at home, they’re not the easiest fruit to take with you during exercise, because the tiny balls of fun have an annoying tendency to get lost in the bottom of pockets or waist belts or, worse still, mushed into a sticky sludge.
Like nuts the nutritional benefits of seeds differ from type to type, but all of them are a good source of protein and unsaturated fats, as well as a range of vital vitamins and minerals. Some seeds like flaxseeds and chia seeds are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, which helps to keep your cholesterol levels on point. They can be finicky to eat on the go, but they’re easy to add to salads, or your pre-ride porridge in the morning.
The African endurance runners who annually win the Marathon des Sables swear by dates and whether you have them fresh or dried, they provide a dose of sugary energy that’s just the ticket during lengthy training sessions.
Dates are also high in fibre, potassium and magnesium, and their chewy texture makes them the ideal ingredient for energy bars, where they help to bind other ingredients together. Veloforte’s Ciocco bar is full of dates to deliver a natural energy hit, with almonds and cocoa also thrown into the mix to provide protein and a mental boost, The Avanti too is packed full of dates and adds Sea Salt to help support your hydration too.