Taste test: Protein bars and snacks for runners

Epic Beef Habanero Cherry Protein Bar
Protein bars and snacks

Sweetwood Cattle Co.’s Fatty meat stick, two Bonk Breakers, an Epic beef bar and a Thunderbird energy bar. Burp.

Protein can be the step-child in discussions about what runners should eat while training. It’s there, but no one’s that focused on it (until someone says “chocolate milk”).

Protein’s best function is after a long run, for recovery. But I have to say: These new 14, 15, 18 mile runs lately have me positively craving protein about three-quarters of the way in, something fierce. When I satisfy the craving, my body responds with such gratitude, I can almost feel it crying. The Luke’s Locker ladies at the register say I must be craving salt and fat.

I picked up a selection of protein snacks and bars to try out. I haven’t tested them on the road yet — and you might want to keep protein as a post-run thing — but this is how they taste and feel.

Epic Bar

Beef Habanero + Cherry

Epic Beef Habanero Cherry Protein Bar

↓ Thumbs down

Taste: Like salted flesh
Texture: Like shredded, salted flesh, compacted back together into a mini-loaf shape of smashed flesh.
Notes: The texture was soft and almost powdery in my mouth.  That probably makes it more digestible on the go, but I expected more of a traditional beef jerky feel. I wanted to like this because Epic seems like such an environmentally conscious and animal-friendly company (as animal-friendly as you can be while still planning to kill and eat them). I could only get through two bites, so I never encountered a habanero or cherry taste. Just pulverized beef flesh.

Nutrition
Serving size: 1 bar
Calories: 190
Fat: 11 g (2 g saturated)
Protein: 13 g
Carbs: 10 g
Sugars: 9 g
Fiber: 2 g
Sodium: 240 mgs
Ingredients: Organic beef, walnuts, dried cherries, lactic acid (not from dairy), salt, celery powder, fine black pepper, crushed habanero

Sweetwood Cattle Co. Fatty

stick1Original Flavored Hickory Smoked Meat Stick

↑ Thumbs up

Taste: Like smoked sausage
Texture: Juicy and even. Still kind of a sausage feel, but it’s more even than the mystery ratatouille of meats you detect on that first snappy bite of most sausage or meat sticks.
Notes: Oh my gosh, I could eat this just for no reason at all. This is quality stuff, as far as meat sticks go, and it’s super tasty and juicy. It’s kind of long, so I’m not sure how I would stash-and-carry on a run. I would probably stash it in my FlipBelt, and just let it conform to she shape of my body. It’s bendy.

Nutrition
Serving size: 2
Calories: 140
Fat: 11 g (4 g saturated)
Protein: 9 g
Carbs: 1 g
Sugars: 1 g
Fiber: –
Sodium: 700 g
Ingredients: Really want to know? Actually it’s not that bad: Pork, beef, water, sea salt, dextrose, sugar, pepper, celery juice powder, garlic powder, encapsulated citric acid, in collagen casing.

Bonk Breaker Energy Bar

Peanut Butter & Jelly

Bonk Breaker Energy Bar for protein

↑  Thumbs up 

Taste: Like some serious PB&J action
Texture: Somewhere between a muffin and a soft cookie
Notes: This is crazy-tasty. I really felt like I was eating a square baked good instead of an energy bar. These Bonk Breakers are kind of big, though. I’d like to try it on a run, but it’s definitely not going to fit in my current carrying situation.

Nutrition
Serving size: 1 bar
Calories: 260
Fat: 10 g (saturated 1.5 g)
Protein: 8 g
Carbs: 36 g
Sugars: 17 g
Fiber: 3 g
Sodium: 130 g
Ingredients: Brown rice syrup, peanuts, gluten-free oats, honey, strawberry jam [sugar, water, strawberry puree, glucose syrup, citric acid, pectin, natural flavor, natural red radish pigment (for color)], rice flour, rice protein, rice crisps (rice flour, sugar, salt, calcium carbonate), flaxseed meal, sea salt.

Bonk Breaker Protein Bar

Peanut Butter & Jelly

Bonk Breaker Protein Bar

↑  Thumbs up 

Taste: Again — It didn’t disappoint on the PB&J front
Texture: Surprisingly, not much different from its Energy cousin
Notes: When a bar touts “protein” on the front, I immediately lower my expectations on taste. I tell myself, “It’s got a job to do. Just let it do its job.” While there was a slight texture difference, only a tad. It tasted and felt really good.

Nutrition
Serving size: 1 bar
Calories: 245
Fat: 9 g (saturated 1 g)
Carbs: 25 g
Sugars: 16 g
Fiber: 3 g
Protein: 15 g
Sodium: 170 g
Ingredients: B-Breaker TM (rice nectar, natural crunchy peanut butter [peanuts, salt], honey), gluten free organic oats, non-gmo brown rice protein isolate, strawberry jam (strawberries, fruit pectin, cane sugar), flaxseed meal, rice crisps (rice flour, rice nectar, salt), sea salt

Thunderbird Energetica

Hyper Hawaiian Crunch

Thunderbird Energetica for protein

Inside Thunderbird Energetica for protein

Fruity-tart goodness

↑  Thumbs up

Taste: I could shove the whole thing into my mouth in one bite.
Texture: Chewy and a little sticky
Notes: I know, I know. What is this doing in a roundup of protein solutions? I wanted a wide variety of protein levels, so this one has the lowest amount. It’s probably the most balanced bar on this list: plenty of carbs/sugar and some salt, with a touch of protein. And MAN is it tasty! Tart and sweet.

Nutrition
Serving size: 1 bar
Calories: 145
Fat: 0 g
Protein: 2.5 g
Carbs: 30 g
Sugars: 22 g
Fiber: 3 g
Sodium: 125 g
Ingredients: Organic prunes, organic buckwheat groats, papaya, organic raisins, organic mango, pineapple, Hawaiian black lava salt

Accel Gel
Accel gel with protein

Citrus Orange

↑  Thumbs up

Taste: I’d prefer if it was a little more mild. Very orangey.
Texture: It’s a gel, with about the same thickness of other, mainstream gels.
Notes: Bingo! This is not an protein bar! You guessed it. But it’s my first energy gel with protein, and I’ve been very pleased with it. I can feel the protein hitting me mere minutes after taking it. It’s not going to solve my monster protein/fat/salt craving, but it’s been a great late-run addition for me.

Nutrition
Serving size: 1 packet
Calories: 100
Fat: 0 g
Protein: 5 g
Carbs: 20 g
Sugars: 13 g
Fiber: –
Sodium: 110 g
Ingredients: Water, fructose, sucrose, whey protein isolate and hydrolysate, maltodextrin, glycerin, natural flavors, citric acid, malic acid, salt, ascorbic acid, vitamin E acetate, vegetable color, soy lecithin

5 first-time marathoner problems

Brooks PureConnect running shoes for the marathon first-timer: me

Five weeks out isn’t too close to the race for new shoes … right?

I’m training for the MetroPCS Dallas Marathon, my first-time full. I’ve run three half marathons, but can I say something? I’m starting to freak out about this full-business.

The race is Dec. 14, which means five weeks to go. Am I ready? Will I have enough phone battery? Am I going to be able to complete it without blowing a ligament? Why does my training plan only go to 20 miles before tapering?

Maybe you’re training for your first, too, or you remember these concerns way back when you were a noob wannabe like me.

5. Is my phone battery going to last for 26.2 miles?

During the race, I won’t be using Google Maps to check where I am like I do on many of my runs. That’s my fault, because I usually insist on running willy-nilly style — taking off into streets and neighborhoods where I have no clue where I am. Mapping my location sucks up the most battery of anything else I do with my phone, including streaming music.

I’ve done 18 miles while listening to music, running the Nike Run app but not checking Google Maps, and I’ve ended with a good 20 percent battery left. But I have yet to know what 26.2 miles will leave me with. I’ll likely leave the earbuds at home because I love experiencing the sights, sounds and energy of the day. So, not listening to NPR or music will help save battery. But I’ll be using my phone to locate friends before the race, and I’ll want to locate my husband easily among the throngs afterward.

I can only guess what my battery situation will be, so I’ll just have to see.

But hey. What did runners before smartphones do? They planned meeting spots and guessed as best they could at a meeting time.

4. What all am I going to carry on race day? How am I going to carry it?

I can’t believe I’m still futzing around with this juggling act.

This entire time, since April, I’ve had the carry thing down so pat that I can mindlessly “pack” in 30 seconds flat: Put ice in hand-held Nathan water bottle, then add water. Pop a gel or two in the pocket, along with a credit card. Dig my earphones out of my bag and grab my phone. Done.

But now that I’m reaching higher mileage, what I’ve been carrying this whole time isn’t quite adequate.

The amount of water is fine; cooler temperatures have me drinking a little less. But I not only need to consume more gels now, my body is dying for protein about halfway through, too. A few times lately, I’ve stopped at gas stations to grab beef jerky and Snickers or Butterfinger Bites to shove in my mouth. It’s a disgusting combo that I would normally never put together (or eat at all, at least not on a regular basis). But my body needs it. I can feel all sorts of magic happening on my insides when I eat it.

Does that mean I’m not intaking enough gels up to that point, causing my body to need it so badly at mile 14? That’s another first-timer mystery I have to work out.

Thing is, Dallas Marathon isn’t going to have beef jerky stations. They’ll have Clif Shot stations, but I have my own gels I want to bring. I’m new at this, I’m fussy with my gels, so I’ll have to tote my own. I won’t bring my water bottle on race day, so there goes the little zippered pocket I typically use. I’ve seen runners clip gels to their clothes with those office wing-clip things; I might do that. I’ll have to tote some protein with me as well. I guess I could have a beef stick flopping around, clipped to my waistband.

I bought a FlipBelt recently, and it holds a lot. But when I’m wearing shorts with slick fabric, the belt slips up toward my waist, which is no good. That’s another thing I have to get figured out before race day: make sure the tights I want to wear jibe with this new FlipBelt of mine, so I can carry all my Stuff.

Yes, I’m a needy newbie who needs her Stuff.

3. How close to race day can I buy that new pair of shoes/tights/bra?

I just bought a new pair of Brooks PureConnects, and I’m pretty certain that five weeks out is enough time to break them in. But I need a new pair of long tights, and I probably won’t get a chance to shop for any until a couple of weeks from now. If I get a good couple of runs in them, it will probably be fine. … Or will it? Do I need several long runs in a key article of clothing to know for sure that I’m not going to quit in agony because of Bloody Blister or Fire Crotch? That might be a little dramatic.

Speaking of buying new things close to race day, I also bought a slew of new protein energy goodies from Luke’s Locker to try — more than I have long runs left, actually. But they looked so tasty. I need to decide if one of these is my protein solution, but again — we’re getting close to race day. Bah.

The new shoes were something I needed. But honestly, everything else I’m tempted to buy this late in the game is really just a big spaz-out attempt at feeling like I have a little extra edge.

2. What is that pain about?

We runners know a thing or four about aches and pains. I wrote about my current ankle pain recently here. Unless pains are obviously serious, they’re usually no big deal. We’ve learned our bodies well enough to know when a body part is just protesting a bit and when it’s sending a warning signal. But new pain anywhere close to race date is scary. We don’t know if it’s just a protest pain or if it’s the beginning of an actual issue that could sabotage all our hard work.

1. Is my name going to end up at the bottom of my age group results?

Am I going to bonk? Blow? Embarrass myself? My training plan only goes to 20 miles, so I’ll be going into the race totally untested at 26.2.

Logic says that if I’ve put in the work, and no unlikely funky factors come into play, I’ll be fine and complete the marathon. But my nervousness about this is more fundamental than, how badly am I going to suck?

Like many first-timers, I know it’s smart to simply focus on completing the race and not on pushing through it like it’s my 400th and I’m getting paid. But still, deep down, I’m attached to this thing. I’ve put in so much time (so much time). I’ve pushed my body’s previously-known boundaries. That pushed the limits of my mind. Which shifted my self-perception.

We new marathoners have hated our training, uttered “I’m SO over this” countless times during long runs. We might have cried (no, not me — I’m just asking for a friend). Then we’ve loved it again, uttering thanks to God for the ability to move and breathe and feel.

For some of us, this hard physical work has beat demons, given us answers, made us new.

We’re emotionally attached to the process that’s brought us to this point. If that process culminates in defeat, failure or disappointment, it will feel like my body has betrayed me. Like I’ve betrayed myself.

The stakes feel so high. Not because anyone is betting on us, but because we’ve put in some really hard work.

So let’s do this: Remember when we got one season of half marathon training under our belt, then one race? After that, we totally knew what to expect and could relax for subsequent halves.

We just have to do the same with our first full. We’ll make mistakes, but we’ll learn.

How I learned to hydrate every day

Drinking fluids adequately and consistently has been a running game-changer

Not experience. Not a new running bra. Not meth. The reason I’m running better now than I ever have is because I’ve finally learned to hydrate — and like it.

I’ve changed my water-drinking ways, and I’m certain that is what’s fueling my newfound energy during runs. I don’t have numbers or intake formulas (or a clinical certification, FYI), but here’s my water story.

Tasty waters taught me to hydrate

Meet my new best friends.

Hydration hang-up

I have always haaaaaated drinking water. Hate it-hate it. Only when I was well over the line of thirst would I ever actually welcome any water into my mouth. Not just water; drinking anything has always been secondary for me. I could go an entire meal and not sip one drink of anything. If I ever needed to fall asleep, I would simply imagine a glass of water from the faucet. Instant zzz’s.

When training for races, or just willy-nilly running in the Dallas heat, you kind of have to drink water. For past training runs, I’d bring a hand-held bottle or Camelbak of iced tap water, sometimes with a Nuun tablet. I’d drink — during my runs. I passively declared hydrating during a run, and whatever incidental water from fruit, my morning coffee, etc., to be enough. I never gave a second thought to hydration IRL.

Fast forward to this bout of training, for my first marathon. When I started on April 8, I was starting back up after the longest break  that I’d taken in a long time (besides one-off quick runs here and there). More than a year. I really feeling like I was at a deficit, and hot weather was already rearing its head. I felt behind, like a newbie. Maybe it was desperation, but I was ready to reassess my approach and find any sort of edge to help me feel in control of my performance. I didn’t know what that edge was yet, but I was open.

My husband is working on his kinesiology degree, and one day he mentioned a class discussion that I had never thought much about: Hydration around the clock, especially in the preceding days, is one of the most important aspects to a successful run. It just clicked.

Figuring out a solution

I had finally ID’d a big, missing component in my running. But the solution couldn’t be simply “drink more water.” Knowing that I needed to hydrate all day didn’t mean I’d magically like it. But I had to find a way to give this new discipline a chance to take root. To succeed, I was going to have to find a way to like the thing I hated.

You gotta hydrate

This used to be my insides.

I started with asking myself why I disliked water so badly in the first place. It ended up that it was really the taste and feel of tap water that I hated. I like bottled water just fine. Why? The water inside is purified and distilled. It’s got nice mouthfeel. But I’m too cheap to spring for a big dispenser/cooler, and I’m not going to continuously buy a gob of, like, 16 ounce bottles every time I go to the store. I wanted the nice-mouthfeel water, but I didn’t want to pay for it.

It dawned on me that if I boiled a bunch of water on the stove in a pot or tea kettle and let it cool, that might be the same thing. Right? Wouldn’t you know it — it sure was. That basically gave me actual, you know, water. Regular old God-made water. No metal or chemical taste. It felt soft in my mouth, not “rough.” I felt kind of stupid for just then realizing that that’s what boiling water does, but it was a significant revelation for me.

I also have a weird thing about putting hot water (especially just-boiled) into plastic. It just makes me feel like ingesting hot liquid steeped in plastic might make me wake up with three arms one day. But I needed receptacles to hold all this boiled H2O. I went to Home Goods and bought two medium-sized glass pitcher-bottle hybrids. After the water cooled, I poured it into one one of the pitchers. That’s the sealed pitcher I keep on the counter; I don’t like cold water unless I’m hot. This gives me a pitcher of fresh, easily-visible and accessible, room-temperature water.

In the past I had seen on recipes on Pinterest for, say, sticking sprigs of mint in your water, or star anise, or every imaginable combination of fruit, herb and even vegetables. Surely there’s a parody account somewhere that shows how to jazz up your water with twigs, leaves, an entire ham, cocaine. Anyway, the pictures of infused and detox waters were intriguing enough to file away in my brain’s “good to know” section, and now I was in need of that inspiration. I normally dislike lemon in my water — sour water, how delicious — but the pins that suggested pairing lemon and cucumber together always seemed right on. I sliced up a handful of both, put them into the other glass pitcher, and filled it up with the rest of the cooled, boiled water over it.

I had found my personal formula. I actually wanted these waters. The pure, fresh, no-fuss water on the counter and the bottle of chilled, lightly-infused water were the solutions to my hydration problem.

Hydration reformation

I can’t get enough of these waters. Now I just grab a glass of whichever one I’m in the mood for every time I wander into the kitchen. It took finding a way to actually like hydrating well every day to actually do it.

  • Now I like starting my day with a glass of water. In the past, drinking a glass of water in the morning would have been nauseating.
  • I sometimes take a lidded mason jar full of infused water to work. I keep it in the breakroom fridge until I’m ready to drink it.
  • I drink a full glass when I get home from work, then again with dinner, then later before bed.
  • I also splurge on bottles of Vitamin Water Zero (orange and lemonade are my favorite) at the store, especially when they’re 10 for $10. I take one to work almost every day, too.
  • At work, I now fill up my glass two-thirds of the way with cold water cooler water, then add a dash of hot dispenser water to bring it up to room temp.
  • With the infused water: No squeezing of the lemon; just gentle placing. Unless you like sour water; I do not. Sometimes, I’ll just do cucumber. Since that pitcher contains produce, it goes in the fridge. Even though I don’t care for chilled water, normally, my brain makes an exception since there’s actual food sitting in it.
  • I don’t count the number of ounces I intake. I’m tracking calorie intake, mileage — I have enough things to track right now. I just know that I’m drinking way more water during my non-running hours than I used to, especially the day before a run. I don’t worry about drinking too much because I’m confident my fluid intake hasn’t increased that much.
  • I’m a late bloomer. I realized the connection between pre-hydration and performance way back in 2010 — remember when you could write two sentences and call it a blog post? — but it’s just now hooking me.

Results

I only have my anecdotal experience to report. But I can guarantee you, now I only long-run bonk when I’ve hydrated poorly in the previous 24 to 48 hours. I’ve gotten lazy a few days here and there, and I can definitely tell a difference during runs that followed. I’ve gotten to where I can feel it deep in my skin and my muscles that my body isn’t hydrated. I never had anything to compare that feeling with before because I used to always live life in a constant state of lack. Parched was my body’s normal.

Nothing I discovered was earth-shattering. Drinking pure water, room temperature water, drinking infused water — the solutions were simple. But to arrive there, I first had to analyze why I hated doing this one thing that all runners really need to do. Finally beating my hate of water, even with just homemade workarounds, has felt like a minor breakthrough.