The evolution of sports fuel

By Avery Robins


We haven’t always had a dizzying array of energy supplements to power us before, during and after a long trail run or mountain bike ride. It used to be that endurance athletes would refuel with Gatorade, bananas, or whatever else was in their fridge. That was until 1986, when Cal Berkeley track coach Brian Maxwell and his wife Jennifer began tinkering with the concept of the energy bar.

Brian was having trouble bonking at the 21st mile mark during marathons, so the couple began experimenting with different recipes in their home kitchen to find a solution.

They started with a blender to mix ingredients like oat bran, milk proteins, fructose and maltodextrins into a thick sludge. The sludge would then cool into the more chewy consistency that we associate with sports bars today.

After three years of experimentation the couple landed on a recipe that was palatable and provided an energizing combination of sugar, protein, and carbohydrates. Soon after, they used their life savings (as they were turned down by numerous potential investors) to produce and sell 35,000 bars – and PowerBar was born. The couple’s success laid the foundation for the sports nutrition industry as we know it today.

Fast forward 30 years and the sports nutrition industry is booming. From gels to gummies the options available to endurance athletes are dizzying in number. Despite the popularity of energy bar products, many people are now moving toward minimally processed foods that are somewhat less convenient but provide benefits like increased fiber intake balanced with overall less sugar intake. This trend is at odds with the classic bar formula that uses processed ingredients to achieve specific carb to protein ratios. We are discovering that the “other stuff” in unprocessed foods (like complete fibers, water, antioxidants, polyphenols, and carotenoids) make for a more well-oiled machine of a body.

Excitingly, the industry is starting to respond. Bar manufacturers are slowly nixing out processed protein sources in favor of whole nuts, dried meats, and oats. Processed sweeteners like maltodextrin and maltitol syrup are being replaced by fruit bits, and real sugar-sweetened dark chocolate. Additionally, entirely new bar makers are cropping up with whole food offerings exclusively.

However, if you find yourself in a whole foods desert or simply want to try making your own athletic fuel, try chef Biju Thomas and Dr. Allen Lim’s recipe from their book Feed Zone Portables (see below).

And don’t worry, we promise you won’t bonk.

Bitter Chocolate & Sea Salt Sticky Bites


Republished with permission of VeloPress from The Feed Zone Cookbook. Try more recipes at

  • 1 cup uncooked sticky rice (Calrose or sushi rice works best)
  • 1⁄2 cup uncooked rolled oats
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp bittersweet chocolate (chips or shaved)
  • 1⁄4 tsp vanilla extract
  • Dash of sea salt

Top with:

  • 2 tbsp shaved bittersweet chocolate
  • 1⁄2 tsp sea salt

Combine oats, rice, and water with a dash of salt in a rice cooker and cook (cooking on the stove top is also fine). Let cool to the touch. In a medium bowl, combine the cooked rice and oats with the remaining ingredients. Stir to incorporate the flavor throughout the sticky mixture. Press into an airtight storage container or shape as individual bites. Sprinkle with chocolate and salt. (Be careful not to add too much salt here.)

STORE: Press the sticky mixture into a shallow airtight container and top with plastic wrap. Simply cut and wrap bites as you need them.

PACK: When you are ready to head out for the day’s ride, pack up your fuel in some wax paper with a little tape closure, or some plastic wrap.

TIP: Oats do not contain gluten, but they are often processed in plants where wheat products are made.

PER SERVING› Energy 101 cal, Fat 1 g, Sodium 197 mg, Carbs 20 g, Fiber 1 g, Protein 2 g, Water 64%