Best Protein Bars for Teenage Athletes: What to Eat and When

One of the most common questions I get from my high school athletes is which granola or protein bars I recommend to help increase energy levels and athletic performance during their busy school day

Protein vs Granola Bar: Is there a difference?

Before we get into it, I want to examine the differences between granola and protein bars. Athletes often assume that all bars have the same fueling focus, but bars are nutritionally very different. All have varying nutritional breakdowns and are appropriate at distinct points of an athlete’s fueling plan. Some are carbohydrate-rich (granola bars) and are best to fuel with before a workout. Others (higher in protein) are more appropriate after training. 

Clif bars are more of a granola bar vs a protein bar

For example, Clif bars have only 9 grams of protein. This is not much when you compare it to the post-workout recommendation of 20 grams of protein. You would have to eat a little over 2 Clif bars to achieve that! It would be much better to use a Clif bar as a fueling top-off before training instead of recovery fuel. 

I am not saying anything negative about Clif Bar (they are a brand I recommend). They are just not protein bars. There are so many other examples of this so make sure you become educated on what you should be looking for in a bar as an athlete. It is important to choose the right one for your goals.

How to Pick Out the Best Bar

Pre-Workout Bar Guidelines

Most bars are high in carbohydrates. But contrary to popular belief, this is not a bad thing! Carbohydrates are fuel for your vital organs and high-intensity exercise. Therefore, high carbohydrate bars can be beneficial around high-intensity loads.

If choosing a bar before practice, look for ~25g of carbohydrates. Fueling with a carbohydrate-rich bar before training will help increase energy levels on the field. 

Recommended Carbohydrate Rich Pre-Practice Bars 

  • Clif Bar
  • Z Bar
  • Chewy Bar
  • Nature’s Bakery

Post-Workout Guidelines

You also want to fuel yourself with carbohydrates after practice to replenish muscle glycogen! After your workouts, your body needs approximately 1.0-1.2 g/kg of carbohydrates compared to your body weight.

Below I walk you through how to figure out how many carbohydrates you need after training: 

Here is an example calculation for a 135 lb athlete:

135 lb / 2.2 lb/kg = approx. 61 kg

Multiply that number (60 kg in this example) by 1.0 or 1.2.

61 kg x 1.0 – 1.2 g/kg = 61 – 73 g of carbohydrates

This provides a range of 61-73 g of carbohydrates. I like to round, so 60-75 g of carbohydrates!

So a 135 lb athlete would need to aim for 60-75g of carbohydrates after training. Most protein bars do not contain this many carbohydrates, so a bar alone after practice will not be enough or athletes. I recommend adding another carbohydrate-rich food, like a banana, to meet your post-workout carbs.

You might be thinking, “That sounds like a lot!” It does, but athletes need a lot of carbs. Ensuring you have the right amount of carbohydrates before and after your workout will help elevate your energy levels and performance outcomes.

What About Protein?

Now let’s talk about how important protein is! Just like carbohydrates, protein should be prioritized after your workout. A post-training protein snack stimulates muscle protein synthesis and recovery. 

I recommend about 20 g of protein after training but finding a quality protein bar with over 20g of protein is challenging for athletes! Many high-protein bars contain artificial sweeteners, artificial gums, and added fiber. Even though these bars are high in protein, fueling with these low-quality ingredients is not ideal. 

Recommended Post-Practice Protein Bars

  • Clif Builder’s Bar
  • ProBar
  • GoMacro Bar

Do Protein Bars Make Good Snacks?

Not only is post-workout protein ideal, but also consistent protein intake the following 24 hours after training is equally essential. Aim for 1.6-1.8 g/kg of body weight of protein each day. For a 135 lb athlete, that would be 97-109 g. If we practice the same rounding approach, 100-110 g of protein daily.

To spread this athlete’s protein consumption throughout the day, I recommend 20-30 g of protein in meals and 10-15 g of protein in snacks. Protein bars can be used to meet an athlete’s protein requirement throughout the day.

If using a bar as a protein source in a snack, aim for 10-15 grams of protein. 

Recommended Snacking Bars for High School Athletes

  • RX Bar
  • GoMacro Bar
  • KIND Protein Bar

So let’s recap:

  1. Pre-workout: 25 g of carbs, 5-10g of protein
  2. Post workout: 1.0-1.2 g/kg of carbs, ~20 g of protein
  3. Snack Bars: ~10-15g of protein

Making sure you have carbohydrates before your workout, ramping up protein consumption after your workout, and then consistently consuming protein throughout the day will build and maintain muscle mass. Granola and protein bars are tools to help athletes like you accomplish these goals!

If you are looking for more guidelines on fueling, check out the Performance Fueling Club (PFC). PFC is my sports nutrition coaching program that combines on-demand resources and individual support. We are currently accepting new athletes and would love to chat more with you to see if you are the right fit! 

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