Loving the BITE: Inexpensive Training Fuel Alternatives for Cyclists and Athletes


Tired of forking over a buck or more every time you want a gel, bar, or drink for each hour of your ride?

Many times, me too.   When weight (or lack thereof) is a priority on very long rides, and I simply want convenience from commercially available light-weight products, gels are one of my go-to fuels.   But, when I’m not as concerned about carbs per gram of weight, and I want more regular-foods at a cheaper price, I often look to other products, outside the sports food aisle of the store.

I’ll admit, these products like gels or most easy-to-digest bars, are not necessarily nutrition all-stars.  They are not all packed with superfood nutrients and most are certainly NOT a staple of my diet nor should they be of yours.   But, when convenience counts, and I haven’t had time to whip up my favorite homemade fuel recipes (which are usually my first choice), you may find me riding with one or more of these in my jersey pocket:

10 Fuel Options Outside the Sports Food Aisle

1) Fig Newtons:

These not-too-sweet cookies are inexpensive, satisfying, and pack a good amount of carbs.  For just 2, you’ll get 15-20 grams of carbs, close to the amount found in many gels.  They are also as convenient as most any fuel, and if needed, an easy food to which you can add salt (see more on salt below).

2) Natural Ingredient Fruit Snacks:

The closest non-sports-food option to a gel or chomp, kids’ fruits snacks are pre-packaged, carb-saturated, and easy to get down.  And, compared to their chomp counterparts, extremely inexpensive.  At ~15 grams carbs per packet, they can certainly contribute to your hourly carb needs on the bike.  But, beware, many are packed with fake colorings, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), flavorings or more.  While I don’t think you have to pay for the organic over-priced fruit snacks, look for ones that are made with sugar instead of HFCS and natural ingredient and colorings.

3) Real Licorice: coconutjuice-1-e1354630591105-225x300

Like fruit snacks, these natural candies are mostly made up of carbs.  Unlike the fruit snacks, they go beyond regular macronutrients and also offer natural ingredients that soothe the stomach.  At just 7 small pieces per 15 grams carbs, they are convenient and easy to get down.

4) Coconut Water :

Of course, coconut water is becoming more and more a sports food as more and more athletes look to it as a natural sports drink.  And, I hesitate to put it on this list since it’s hardly cheap.  But, compared to many boutique sports drinks, you’ll likely still save money and find a natural alternative loaded with potassium, sodium, and carbs.

5) Natural-Ingredient Cheese Sandwich Crackers:

These are a savory choice, while many on this list are more on the sweet side (like most bars/gels).   I look forward to these and they always hit the spot.  Again, I would not and do not eat these when not training.  But, as my solid fuel option every 3 hours or so on a long ride, they make for an inexpensive and salty treat.

6) Honey:

Most readers know I think a lot of organic and raw honey.  Whether from a honey stick or squeezed into a flask (with maybe a small amount of water to make it flow better), it’s an all natural carb source that also packs enzymes, antioxidants, and minerals.  It digests slower than most pure sugars, and works well as fuel.

7) Salt:

Most athletes need 400 milligrams of more sodium per hour of training, especially in the summer.  Most athletes don’t get this.  If your drink, food, or fuel is low (many of the options listed here are low just like many “sports foods” are low), you can simply add salt.  Just 1/8 tsp. provides 300 mg sodium, so add what you need to your drink or foods.

8) Fresh, Preserved, and Dried Fruits:

Fruits are the carbs of choice for many athletes, and for the most part, they are a good choice as long as you’re also using other carb sources with starches or glucose.  Fructose, the sugar from fruit, is not metabolized or used by the muscles quite as fast as glucose, and cannot be used by itself in as great of amounts per hour as glucose or a combo of glucose and fructose.  With this in mind, and a fuel quiver with many types of carbs, go for fruit.  Choose fresh, dried, or squeezable pouches (baby food).

9) Beef Jerky:

Another savory choice, natural beef jerky can work well for sodium and protein on long rides, every few hours or so.  When eating it, you’ll also want to add a carb choice (as it has virtually no carbs) to keep fueling well.  It’s leanness allows it to digest relatively easily for a whole protein.

10) Sweet Potatoes:

Sweet potatoes provide long-lasting carbs and are easier than you may think to carry.  You can bake them, mash them (optionally with some coconut oil) save them in a baggie, and squeeze them out.  Maybe even add a bit of salt.  They will keep you going, fill your stomach just enough to take away any hollow nausea feeling, and last longer than the average gel.

Top Minimal Ingredient Homemade Fuel Options:

I simply couldn’t help myself and I had to include some recipes.  If you’re interested in my top homemade fuel recipes, here’s your link.  They are very easy, contain few ingredients, and are made with real, whole foods.  When I have enough time, this is what I make.  If not, I often use any on this list or again, commercial gels or bars that I like.  If you’ve got a few minutes to spare, you won’t be disappointed with these recipes.


When I look for a non-homemade, non-sports-food fuel option, here’s what I look for:

1) Easy to digest.  Fast-acting carbs, not too high in fiber and not too high in fats (except coconut oil and medium chain triglycerides).

2) Easy to carry. Figs are more convenient for me than a banana, but I know many athletes who will gladly lug a banana simply because they like to use them as fuel.  This one is subjective, but I generally want something that won’t get smashed, that doesn’t take too much room, and that will still taste okay in hot temperatures.

3) Price.  I’m frugal by nature.  And, since I find most of these options work as well as the more expensive sports food options, it sometimes seems silly to me to spend so much – and, with a lot of miles each week logged by myself and my husband, it certainly adds up in our household.  I believe in fueling training well most every time so that I can ride my best, so inexpensive yet effective options are great!

4) Ingredients.  Even though I admit many of these aren’t the absolutely most nutritious foods on earth, I still have some standards, even with training fuel! I want a short list of ingredients, natural ingredients, and as few chemical ingredients as possible.

5) The right nutrients.  When I’m riding 3 hours or less, I know my body simply needs fluids, carbs, and electrolytes, especially sodium.  Longer might require some protein, more substantial foods, and more electrolytes.  I’ve picked these options with nutrient needs, on the bike, in mind.

And, what about you?  What non-sports-food would I find in your jersey?  What have you found works well, tastes good, packs well, and is conveniently found in most grocery stores?  This week, whether using a homemade fuel recipe, sports food, or fuel option like these listed , simply aim to fuel your ride well.  By giving your body what it needs, you can ride to your potential, push yourself, and hit new goals.

Fuel Your Ride. Nourish Your Body.

Enjoy Your Ride
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2 Responses to “ Loving the BITE: Inexpensive Training Fuel Alternatives for Cyclists and Athletes ”

  1. ExChef on August 1, 2013 at 8:39 am

    Great information! Thank you. I need to find low (less than 15gm) sugar high protien stuff for riding after my surgery.

    • Kelli, RD on August 1, 2013 at 9:33 am

      Thanks so much for the comment – you’ll likely have to look outside the sports nutrition aisle for these. The sweet potatoes + organic coconut oil may be a great start. Then, you can also add a protein powder or protein on the side. I actually did a post on low-sugar training fuel a while back: http://lovingthebike.com/nutrition-tips/non-sugar-nutrition-for-cyclists – I hope this helps!

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Sugar Alternatives for Energy and Hydration

Question: I am using the homebrew sugar formulations (sometimes added to green tea).  I am also trying to wean myself off 1/2 dose adrenalean “lip tonic delivery system” (biorhythm brand- caffeine, hoodia g, synephrine, yohimbe) capsule for energy.

My question is other than juice, can you suggest modifications in lieu of table sugar for energy and hydration.


Both raw/organic honey or agave can work great in the homebrew (substitute in the same quantities for the sugar, or to taste), but you do have to shake well in order to make sure they don’t settle out.  Have you tried either of these?  Also, make sure to use at least the minimum amount of salt recommended in the homebrew as the temps rise, you need the sodium replacement if you’re sweating.

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Please send us your questions for our Expert Sports Nutritionist, Kelli Jennings to “Ask the Sports Nutritionist“. Kelli Jennings is a Registered Dietitian with a passion for healthy eating, wellness, & sports nutrition. For more information go to www.apexnutritionllc.com.

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