Energy bars can be something of a cheat code for runners. When you’re pressed for time before a morning run or prefer something more palatable instead of gels or gummies while on the road or trail, an energy bar can meet that need.

But with so many choices in the grocery store aisle or at your local running store, it can be daunting to choose the right bar.

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So we’re here to guide you. We enlisted the help of registered dietitian Amy Goodson, M.S., R.D., to breakdown all the nutrition information on energy bars, and had Runner’s World staffers bravely loan their taste buds to determine which are appetizing—and which are almost inedible.

nutritional bars testing
Lakota Gambill

Why Energy Bars?

Bars sometimes get a bad rap for their high fat and sugar content, but Goodson explains that there’s a difference between nutrition and sports nutrition. “If you’re sitting at a desk, it is not the same as running for two hours, so the demands on your body are different,” Goodson says.

That’s why bars are the ideal convenience food for athletes like us on a tight schedule or for those in the throes of a heavy training load and in need of extra nutrients.

When you’re shopping for energy bars, don’t freak out about the amount of sugar and carbs. Remember, that’s what helps fuel your miles and replenishes your muscles afterward. Just be sure to avoid artificial sweeteners, like Splenda; that won’t cut it because they’re calorie-free.

Instead of looking at bars as a meal replacement, think of them as a convenient snack, and a tool to support your training goal instead of cutting corners when it comes to proper nutrition.

nutrition bar testing
Lakota Gambill

When to Eat an Energy Bar

Many companies, like Honey Stinger and PowerBar, put a recommended time of consumption right on the product packaging for you. This suggested timing is determined by the balance of macronutrients—protein, carbs, and fat—in the bar. Here’s a cheat sheet on how to figure out when’s the best time to eat an energy bar:

Before your workout: “You’re typically looking for a bar that’s going to be higher in carbohydrates, because carbs are your main source of energy during running,” Goodson says.

Look for a 4:1 ratio of carbs to proteins (40g carbs to 10g protein, for example), and be wary of higher fats and fiber since this can slow digestion and cause GI distress.

And while Goodson advises eating a bar 30 to 60 minutes before a run (or an actual meal two to four hours beforehand), workout intensity and duration—and your own individual digestion process—are factors that could impact this recommendation.

During your workout: Most people have enough stored fuel in your body to support runs that are 60 to 90 minutes at an easy to moderate intensity. But if you’re planning a long run of 90 minutes or more, or a run that includes high-intensity efforts over 60 minutes, you’ll want to start fueling early.

If you’re training for a marathon, it’s best to troubleshoot what your stomach can tolerate on long runs. Look for a bar high in carbs, but low in fat and protein, and very low in fiber, because those nutrients slow down digestion.

“While you’re working out, you want food to digest as fast as possible, which is why you need simple sugars,” Goodson says. Try nibbling on a bar every 30 minutes for a serving of 25g of carbs to keep up your energy on a long run.

After your workout: Even though running is an endurance activity, you’re still doing damage to lean muscle mass, says Goodson. Within 30 to 60 minutes after a run, consume about 20 to 25g of protein to help replenish and repair your muscles. Goodson also recommends not consuming a lot of fat immediately after a workout, since fat slows digestion.

“Post-workout, the goal is to digest quickly,” she says. “The faster it digests, the faster it’s going to get into your bloodstream and be used for energy.”

Whey protein is often in recovery bars because it contains leucine, which is the amino acid that’s like “the light switch for muscle recovery,” Goodson says—it’s a very quick-digesting protein.

As a snack: Bars that have more fat (“whole food” bars with nuts and nut butters) are great for a snack in-between endurance workouts, and, sometimes, pre-workout. You can chow down on them when slow digestion isn’t an issue. Just take note of added sugars if you plan to snack on them on light running or rest days.

nutritional bars testing
Lakota Gambill
nutritional bars testing
Lakota Gambill
nutrition bar testing
Lakota Gambill

How We Tested the Energy Bars

Clif Bar Caramel Macchiato Runner’s World staffers to blind taste test 25 bars at our HQ, while following COVID-19 protocol. For this cycle, we mailed 29 bars to 11 RW tasters—five of whom participated in the previous round of tasting—to ensure their safety during the uptick in cases during the holiday season.

Because they were able to consume the bars around their workouts, many of our tasters snacked pre-, during, and post-workout, to see how effective they were in satiating their appetites and providing energy.

Below are the eight bars that scored the highest—an average of 4.8 or higher on a scale of 1 to 7. These are the bars that weren’t too offensive to our pickiest staffers, and tasted like “real food” instead of the over-processed stuff. We included the bars’ average score, nutrition information, texture, when to eat them, and why we loved them.

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Best Overall

This Saves Lives Dark Chocolate Sea Salt

Lakota Gambill
Dark Chocolate Sea Salt
This Bar Saves Lives

Taste Score: 6.2/7
When to Eat:
Before and during a workout.

This Saves Lives scored the highest in our taste test, knocking down Honey Stinger’s candy-like cracker bars. Maybe we also felt good consuming a bar with a conscience: In partnership with Action Against Hunger, every This Saves Lives purchase feeds a child.

The sweet and salty Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Bar has a sing-song crunch when you bite into it—this is not the granola bar mom used to pack into our school lunches. Not a cocoa fan? Try the Madagascar Vanilla Almond and Honey flavor, which is chock-full of nuts and tastes like dessert. Just be careful smiling for race photos. Some of our testers reported getting flax seeds stuck between their teeth.

Jessica Coulon, Associate Digital Editor: “This one is perfect for those with more of a sweet tooth. I ate it before riding indoors, and it gave me a nice little sugar kick. The flavor overall is really pleasant—a nice, standard chocolate with hints of almond. The texture was pretty good, too; it wasn’t too firm or overly crunchy.”

Best Gluten-Free Bar

Skratch Labs Anytime Energy Bar Raspberries and Lemons

Lakota Gambill
Raspberries and Lemons
Skratch Labs

Taste Score: 5.7/7
When to Eat:
During a workout.

Turns out Skratch Labs—the team behind those convenient hydration powder packets—can create a mean energy bar, as well. Actually, a couple of tasty energy bars. We tried the Cherries and Pistachios and Peanut Butter and Strawberries, but the Raspberries and Lemons reigned supreme—an appropriate flavor after a lemon of a year. Skratch touts the bars are for “anytime” but we recommend gnawing on them during a workout when you need that extra boost of carbs.

Courtney Linder, Senior News Editor: “I think that Skratch Labs is absolutely killing it based on the two that I tried. Just when I thought it would be impossible to beat the cherry pistachio flavor, I was taken aback by the lemon and raspberry bar—it was slightly sweet like a raspberry jam, but packed all of the tartness of your favorite lemon pie. Yet again, the texture was really great, with pieces of dried fruit inside and a nice snap when you crunch your teeth into the bar.”

Best Protein Bar

R.E.D.D. Salted Caramel Plant-Based Protein Bar

Lakota Gambill
Salted Caramel

Taste Score: 5/7
When to Eat:
After a workout.

Our second round of tasting afforded some brands a second chance, like R.E.D.D. Perhaps the misstep was offering the Oatmeal Bar—a truly divisive flavor amongst our testers, who expected cookies and cream during the blind-tasting. But R.E.D.D., which stands for Radiant Energy Delicious Delivered, had a winner this round with Salted Caramel. The bar is high in protein, as well as fiber, so we suggest snacking on this bar post-workout. However, one of our editors who tends to cramp up on her runs, found she had no stomach issues eating the bar before—and during—her run.

Linder: “I started eating the bar halfway through my cardio workout. I jogged about 1.5 miles toward a park in my neighborhood and sat down on the bench for a breather and a bite (okay, the whole thing). I thought that the bar was satisfying, and it helped fuel the rest of my jog.”

Best Pre-Workout Bar

Bonk Breaker Real Food Energy Bar Peanut Butter & Dark Chocolate Chip

Lakota Gambill
Peanut Butter & Chocolate Chip
Bonk Breaker

Taste Score: 5.8/7
Calories/Carbs/Protein: 200/25g/6g
When to Eat:
Before or during a workout.

A reader recommended Bonk Breaker after part I of our energy bar tasting (and no, not all the brands we test advertise with us, and we don’t get paid by them), so we sought out Bonk’s wares and were astonished by its many offerings.

We tried the Collagen Peanut Butter & Dark Chocolate Chip Protein Bar, and munched on the Peanut Butter & Jelly High Protein Bar, post-run. But the Peanut Butter & Dark Chocolate Chip Energy Bar whet our appetites. We were won over by its smooth texture, natural sweeteners—said a taster, “This one does not use Stevia, instead it’s honey and brown rice syrup. I’d eat this again”—and Ritz Cracker-like PB taste.

Tyler Daswick, Associate Features Editor: “Really tasty bar—the ‘real’ ingredients advertised come through for a strong, sweet/salty peanut taste offset by the right amount of bittersweet chocolate. Texturally it’s a little too synthetic, but the chocolate chips add some variance, and the real nut butter makes it a little creamy. Would buy more!”

Best for During a Run

Picky Bar Blueberry Boomdizzle

Lakota Gambill
Blueberry Boomdizzle
Picky Bars

Taste Score: 5.3/7
Calories/Carbs/Protein: 190/24g/7g
When to Eat: Before or during a workout.

It was a close call between Smooth Caffeinator and Blueberry Boomdizzle, but our tasters were enamored with the fruity Boomdizzle’s dried berries—even our lone editor who hates blueberry-flavored anything. Another editor compared its taste to a hardy breakfast. “[The bar] tastes like a really good blueberry oatmeal, with the right amount of sweetness, toastiness, and warm spice,” he said.

It was difficult to pinpoint what superlative we would bestow Picky, but we chose “Best for During a Run,” for its conveniently pocketable size and non-crumbly texture.

Trevor Raab, Photographer: “Packs a lot of good flavor, on the sweeter side but another one that feels substantial. Use of natural sweetness with limited added sugar is a plus. Tastes real.”

Best Post-Workout Bar

Honey Stinger Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate Cracker Bar

Lakota Gambill
Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate Cracker Bar
Honey Stinger

Taste Score: 5.5/7
When to Eat:
During or after a workout or as a snack.

Honey Stinger’s Cracker Bar was our overall winner last tasting, and even though it has been dethroned, we’re still big fans of this chocolatey, nutty, crunchy—albeit, messy—snack. Honey Stinger has reformulated its recipe to include twice as much plant protein. Another update: Instead of almond or cashew butter, the Cracker Bars—available as dark or milk chocolate—are only offered with a peanut butter filling.

The new version is a bit drier, but testers were still satisfied with the overall taste and familiar crunchy texture. Besides the crumbly cracker bits that showered our cyclists’ laps, another small hazard was melting chocolate in our runners’ pockets. But being a slob is worth this mid-workout treat. Just remember to bring some water.

Amanda Furrer, Test Editor: “So crumbly, so messy, but still so good. A little dry with the peanut butter in the middle, but it’s real PB! Very filling.”

Best for Snacking

IQBar Chocolate Sea Salt

Lakota Gambill
Chocolate Sea Salt

Taste Score: 4.8/7
When to Eat:
As a snack.

Even though the ketogenic diet might not work for all runners, we tried a few keto-friendly bars for variety. “I would say [it’s] not the best diet choice for most runners as it eliminates most carbohydrates, which is your main source of energy during exercise,” Goodson said. “But eating a keto bar as a snack, or even with fruit as a snack, would be a fine choice.”

IQBar boasts six “brain nutrients” on its label, including Lion’s Mane, a type of mushroom, which made some tasters raise an eyebrow. But the bar also contains 12 grams of plant-based protein (almonds and pea protein) and 2.2mg of iron (10 percent of the recommended daily value). Tasters liked the chocolate sea salt, but don’t rule out the surprisingly wholesome Banana Nut, which tastes like banana bread.

Lakota Gambill, Photographer: “I LOVE the taste of the bar. The chocolate doesn’t taste artificial and it’s almost like a chocolate milk taste. This bar also basically makes you Bradley Cooper in Limitless. I felt like I had all the clarity and energy in the world. It pushed me through a HIIT sprint workout and still gave me energy after. By far my favorite bar in terms of performance.”

Best Non-Chocolate

Kate’s Real Food Lemon Coconut & Ginger Bivy Bar

Lakota Gambill
Lemon Coconut & Ginger
Kate’s Real Food

Taste Score: 5.8/7
(1/2 bar) 130/17g/3g
When to Eat:
Before or during a workout.

It’s a tease that this delectable brick is a two-serving bar (the packaging actually instructs you on how to wrap the half and save it for later). Like a Pringles situation or ice cream pint, we just can’t stop once we’re halfway through. But don’t get us wrong—this bar is filling. We feasted on the Dark Chocolate Cherry & Almond bar, but the “clean, pleasantly sweet, and aromatic” Lemon Coconut & Ginger made us feel like we were eating a classier, grownup-version of a Rice Krispie Treat.

Amy Wolff, Photo Director: “Yes, yes. I love this bar. I love textured chewy granola bars like this so I knew it’d be a hit but the flavors were great. Nothing artificial in here, and I could even taste/feel the coconut bits. It’s a decent-sized bar so probably a bit big to throw down immediately before a workout or during but if you give yourself like 30 minutes before your workout, it’s perfect. No upset tummy, plenty of nutrients to keep you going. Citrus, coconut, not too sweet.”

Bars We Loved Last Round

Best Bar That’s Not Quite an Energy Bar

Honey Stinger Gluten-Free Waffles Wildflower Honey

Lakota Gambill
Gluten-Free Wildflower Honey
Honey Stinger

Taste Score: 5.5/7
When to Eat: Before or during a workout.

Coffee’s BFF, the stroopwafel waffle, is also an ideal pick-me-up for runners—it isn’t too dense with calories and has 21g of carb to give you that extra boost on a long run. The only drawback is how it is easily decimated into crumbs when shoved into a pocket or jostling around in a gym bag.

We tried Honey Stinger’s Protein Waffles our second round of tasting but old and new testers and waffle lovers just couldn’t get past the “chalky” and gritty texture, and pasty, goopy middle—a far cry from the smooth, syrupy filling we usually associate with Honey Stinger Waffles. We still love our energy waffles, however, which is why the Gluten-Free Wildflower Honey remains on this list.

Taylor Rojek, Associate Features Editor: “Thumbs up. What food should be.”

Best Bar With a Caffeinated Kick

Clif Bar Caramel Macchiato

Caramel Macchiato
Clif Bar

Taste Score: 4/7
When to Eat:
Before, during, or after a workout.

Most of our staff can’t live without coffee, and research shows that consuming caffeine an hour before a physical challenge can help both endurance athletes and sprinters go farther and faster than when they go without it. And according to the American Physiological Society, post-workout caffeine can aid in muscle recovery if consumed with carbs.

Made with organic coffee beans, this bar contains 65mg of caffeine—the equivalent of one shot of espresso (63mg) and 45g of carbs. It has a rich caramel taste and icing drizzled on top. It also has a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein, making it an ideal source of energy before endurance activities.

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