fitness · food

Activity snacks: what’s your favorite?

This week is sort of feeling like the first week of summer. I say “sort of” because today the high was 53F. Brrr… But the temperature on Monday was fantastic for cycling– mid 70s and sunny. My friend Pata and I met up and then headed to our favorite coffee place in Lexington, MA to snack and caffeinate. We rode in the afternoon, so both got forms of ice tea with lemonade, and she ordered banana bread.

Two ice teas and one slice of banana bread, with two bikes waiting patiently behind.
Two ice teas and one slice of banana bread, with two bikes waiting patiently behind.

I know from our many rides that Pata loves the right baked good to keep her going during a ride. Me, I generally prefer to stick to clif shot bloks, or clif bars, or luna bars (my favorites).

My two bike bottles (with orange gatorade) flanking two packs of clif shot bloks. The bikes are still waiting.
My two bike bottles (with orange gatorade) flanking two packs of clif shot bloks. The bikes are still waiting.

Of course, these specialized energy bar/block/gel/drink products can be pricey. I try to order in bulk, and often can get them through athlete friends who have pro deals or other discounts. But, in the end, they work for me on rides, so I don’t mess with what works.

However, I was reminded of how some of us (meaning me) can be overly fussy about how we refuel during breaks in activity. Sitting on a bench across from us were this nice woman and her two kids. She was roller blading and they were biking. On a break they indulged in a bag of multicolored jelly beans, bought from the local drug store. I am sure they cost less than one of my packages of clif shot bloks.

A nice woman and her two kids, enjoying a jelly bean break during a cycling/skating outing.
A nice woman and her two kids, enjoying a jelly bean break during a cycling/skating outing.

I never got their names, but she said it was okay to use their picture. These folks were eminently practical and economical about getting some energy snacks. In fact, my former sports nutritionist Nancy Clark (who has written several books about sports nutrition for runners and cyclists, including here and here) told me that I could put jelly beans in a bag with some salt, and they would be just as good as these tasty but expensive sport beans.

A veritable cornucopia of flavors and types of sport beans (glorified jelly beans in tiny expensive packages).
A veritable cornucopia of flavors and types of sport beans (glorified jelly beans in tiny expensive packages).

Last summer I really stocked up on energy chewables, so I’ve got plenty to start off an active cycling summer. But I’m giving some thought to trying out more modest fueling fare. Do the fancy products really help more than the plain snacks, or is it just placebo effect?

This is a hard question, and I’ve done a bit of digging and not gotten a clear answer. For endurance, high-octane performance, and recovery, we need different combos of sugars, proteins, minerals and generally not much fats, as they are harder to digest. On the other hand, some studies have shown that chocolate milk is one of the best recovery drinks ever (if you can tolerate milk and the fat content).

Yes, exercise science is complicated.

I’ll keep looking into this, and when I have something to say, you can read it here first.

What I can say with some certainty for now: don’t eat this:

Yes, this is birthday cake-flavored popcorn, or so it says.
Yes, this is birthday cake-flavored popcorn, or so it says.

In the meantime, I’m curious: what are your favorite during-ride and after-ride snacks? I recall that Cate swore by cheese sandwiches during her bike ride through the Baltics. Dear readers, what gets you through a ride, hike, sail, paddle, run, walk, etc.? Do you make your own concoction? Buy something from the convenience store? Order fancy food online? I’d love to hear from you.

20 thoughts on “Activity snacks: what’s your favorite?

  1. 1. Cheese sandwiches.
    2. More cheese sandwiches.
    3. Ideally, the cheese sandwiches are excellent european white hard cheese and tangy hard brown bread.
    4. Add cucumbers to the cheese sandwiches.

    If I don’t happen to be in europe, I like KIND bars, not too sweet (ie., the cranberry chia ones rather than the chocolate ones), small handfuls of salted peanuts, dried apricots, bananas. I tend to go for electrolyte drink rather than squeezy gels — I put water in my camelback and an electrolyte drink on my bike (I’m partial to nuum tablets right now).

    I like a good slice of banana bread halfway through a ride but I don’t like to stop for long if I can avoid it and I don’t like eating a whole lunch — I like snacking.

    My favourite mid-ride snack ever, though, was an actual lunch — at the 105 km mark of my 160 km (imperial century) ride in bc. Avocado, tomato and bacon sandwich. Best thing in the world. I want it now.

    Also, cheese sandwiches.

    1. You know, I’m counting on a detailed log of the Newfoundland trip (I know it will be after the fact, unless you’re bringing a portable satellite link…) . BTW, avo/tom/bac sandwich– nothing is better, I agree!

  2. I’m not a biker, but I do some hiking every summer. Every year, I enjoy playing around and trying new recipes for backpacking food. The goal for me is something not too heavy, not too messy to eat/keep in my pack until I have access to garbage facilities, and provides enough nutrition to be worth carrying around with me and eating.

    I’ve made my own dehydrated “fruit rolls,” with homemade applesauce or mashed bananas as the base. I like granola bars (oats and rice cereal as the base, usually), but I haven’t yet found a recipe that holds its shape on the trail that isn’t inhibitively sweet and/or greasy. I usually make them anyway and let them crumble apart.

    Store-purchased go-tos are smoked salmon pouches, individual packs of nut butters, triscuits crackers, carrot sticks/baby carrots, and whole fruit. I only drink water and let fruit and/or salted foods fulfill my “electrolyte” needs.

    1. Yum! The fruit rolls sound intriguing. Are they hard to make? The fish pouches also sound interesting; a kayaking friend buys pre-made tuna salad in a sealed pouch, which is handy, waterproof and does the job of giving some protein. I admit on the bike I do rely on the sports drinks a lot, but again, they do the job for me, and they taste good to me only when I’m working hard.

      1. Hey Catherine! The fruit rolls are super-forgiving, but I *do* have a dehydrator, which makes them easy to make. I’ve read about folks using an oven on a superlow temperature (door cracked open, maybe?), but I’ve never done that, so I don’t know how it goes. My dehydrator has a plastic tray for that purpose (otherwise, the trays are slatted), and I put perhaps a centimeter of fruit puree on the tray and let it go for 10 hours, or however long it takes to dry. Apple (as cooked applesauce) and banana both have enough substance to them to make nicely textured rolls. I’ve mixed them with all sorts of other things, mashed or whirled in a blender first, if needed–canned pumpkin, fresh spinach, pears, peaches, all sorts of berries, etc.

        In our stores down here, we can get salmon pouches right alongside the canned tuna in the supermarket. Might be worth checking out!

  3. Crunchy natural peanut butter (walnut butter for super supreme), honey and a sprinkle of coarse salt sandwich on Dave’s multigrain.

    1. The nut butters sound great! I do PBJ, but will consider branching out. And the coarse salt is a great idea. Thanks!

  4. I don’t do much cycling, but I have a bit of experience fueling for all-day ultimate frisbee tournaments!

    During these events, I drink a lot of water and sports drinks (usually full-sugar gatorade for the easy-to-process calories and electrolytes). I also try to snack continuously – things like cheez-its, beef jerky, candy, graham crackers, fresh fruit, baked goods, and granola bars. Basically anything that’s available and sounds mildly palatable to my stomach.

    I also do distance running sometimes, and for that I have to be a little more careful. I can eat or drink pretty normally if I’m going slowly (when I was building up distance for my recent half marathon, I sometimes stopped at a cafe near the run midpoint for a quick snack), but I’m afraid to eat or drink very much when I’m pushing harder because my stomach gets downright fussy! Maybe that’s where something like shot blocks would come in handy, but I haven’t tried them yet. If I ever train for an event longer than a half marathon, I will have to experiment more with mid-run fueling.

    1. I agree that running requires extra care! Maybe because I’m still a noob, I have to watch what I eat before every run, sometimes including the night before. I eat a lot of salads, but they are NOT running-gut-friendly. The morning of a run, I have to stick to easy fuel–oatmeal with cooked apples, yogurt, etc. And I’ve never run far enough to justify fuel on the go, although sometimes I’ll “pack” a smoothie in my car for the drive home afterwards.

    2. Yes, I totally get what you’re saying. This is my situation when I’m riding long and or hard. I can’t tolerate real meals/food, even immediately afterward. It’s so weird– most MTBike races I’ve been to serve pork BBQ at the finish line. No thank you! 🙂

      Lots of people are sensitive about texture and consistency (me among them). I love the clif shot bloks (they’re like jelly candy in texture), but several of my friends can’t stand that texture. I can’t deal with gus and honey stingers but others swear by them.

      One friend uses maple syrup and milk as a recovery drink. I guess anything goes…

  5. I have never drank nor wanted to drink Gatorade.
    Favourite snacks on a long bike ride 50-100 km. would be: half a sandwich, orange juice, a banana, a chocolate bar with nuts…..even coffee starts to look good even when it’s hot and humid. 🙂

    But hey, stop over and buy some counter warm dim sum at a major Asian supermarket out in the ‘burbs. 😉 Ever thought of that?

    1. Wow– a dim sum stop on a long ride! That’s an interesting idea… If I am riding super-mellowly, I could do it, but if I’m working hard at all, my stomach only wants very simply food– bland and salty, or liquid and sweet. But bananas are always welcome… All this snack posting is getting me hungry… 🙂

  6. I don’t do long cycling activities, but I do enjoy hiking and playing baseball/softball. The softball games are timed, and I can handle the hour and forty minutes without snacks, generally, as long as I have some water. The baseball games are seven innings, no matter how long it takes us, which is generally around three hours or more, and the last half has become a bit of a slog for me. I didn’t think to bring a snack along, and your post has clued me in that perhaps I should. Snacks, generally speaking, are what I associate with day hiking trips, not sports activities, but the length of time spent on the activity is about the same, even if the effort feels less, so I’m now going to pack some energy blocks or other easy snack for baseball.

    With hiking, I tend to bring more substantial snacks, though sometimes I’ll throw in a packaged snack marketed for that purpose. I like the Justin’s nut butter packets for convenience, along with small bags of trail mix from Aldi (nuts, dried fruit, and some form of chocolate bits, please). Sometimes I’ll include a banana, and if I want some additional carbs, I’ll make a tortilla rollup with nut butter and honey. Tangerines or clementines are nice if I have them, and the same for string cheese sticks. Both aren’t too bad if they have warmed up during the hike, though the cold of my water bladder in the pack tends to balance any effects from body heat and outside temperatures.

    When I’m tired or thirsty, the last thing I want is a Cliff bar or the equivalent. I used to try packing those, and found I was barely able to choke them down.

    As it happens, the first time I tried and enjoyed a California roll was on top of a mountain. A fellow hiker had packed in a container of them, and the combination of crisp cucumber, creamy avocado, salty rice and nori, and the “crab” was just the right thing for my tired, hot, and thirsty body. I haven’t been brave enough to pack that snack myself, but I might some day.

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