There once was a time during which the most common sports nutrition products consisted of dense, unappetizing bars and gritty, sugar-laden beverages. No more. The latest product evolution features clean, simple, easily digestible ingredients, a vast array of flavor and nutrient profiles (including vegan and plant-based, gluten-free, organic and non-GMO components), and a wealth of options that includes gels, bars, bites, chews, crackers, waffles, ice pops, shots and powders. Brands are also continuing to develop a greater variety of formulations for use before, during and after activities.

Although sports nutrition category sales figures aren’t readily available for the U.S. athletic market, many independent research firms concur that the segment is booming worldwide. For example, MarketWatch projects that the global sports nutrition market will reach $53.07 billion by 2026, exhibiting a CAGR of 6.66 percent from 2018-2026. Modor Intelligence is even more optimistic, believing that the global market will grow at a CAGR of 8.42 percent from 2019-2024, due to increasing demand from a more diverse consumer group that includes core athletes along with a large influx of recreational participants and other health and fitness enthusiasts. Statista valued the global sports nutrition market at $50.84 billion in 2018, and expects it to reach $81.5 billion by 2023. Finally, Allied Market Research anticipates that North America will account for more than 40 percent of the global sports nutrition market share by 2021. This should all be great news for brands as well as run specialty retailers.

“We are seeing new products coming to the market at a faster rate. The channel is heavily influenced by an influx of innovation two times a year from categories such as footwear and clothing, and we’re seeing that innovation expectation carry over to nutrition,” says Pat Bush, national sales manager for Sports Specialty Retail at Clif Bar & Company.

In the running category in particular, Kevin Weber, co-founder and owner of Denver, CO-based energy bar maker Fourpoints, agrees that the market is getting more crowded. However, he says, “as far as products marketed specifically to runners, the interesting thing in my opinion is that they seem to all be gels or drinks which are geared mostly for hydration, or quick bursts of energy which then becomes something you have to stay on top of and consistently fuel throughout your run to keep your blood sugar from crashing, because what comes up must go down and your blood sugar is no exception. I don’t see a lot of innovation as far as real food products or products that are aimed at ‘pre-run’ solutions.”

But over at GU Energy Labs, marketing communications manager Brian Gillis sees the expanding influence of nutrition products in the running market a bit differently. “The nutrition category is strong in run specialty right now because of the increased awareness of the importance of fueling while running. With diets like paleo, keto and others becoming more mainstream, people are more keenly aware of what they are putting into their bodies, so it becomes critical to think more about nutrition,” he explains. “Also, with the increase in popularity in the trail and ultra communities, fueling becomes a key component to a runner’s success. It is also great to see so many new brands and innovative products hitting the market, as it continues to shine a spotlight on the category as a whole.”

One of the most transformational trends to hit the category is the use of clean ingredients. Vegan, gluten-free, organic and non-GMO elements are major selling points, as are natural sweeteners, seed and nut butters along with the use of “super foods” such as berries, beets, bergamot and whole grains.

“The most compelling trend in the sports nutrition space is the shift away from dirty energy (highly processed, synthetic ingredients) and toward clean energy (minimally processed, real food ingredients),” says Ian Muir McNally, founder and CEO of Muir Energy. “Clean energy brands are ideally positioned to capitalize on this trend. The global sports nutrition market is projected to grow at 9.7 percent CAGR over the next five years, but I expect clean energy brands to grow faster than this. It’s clear customers are demanding real food alternatives to fuel their workouts and events, because they’re tired of the GI distress associated with many of the nutrition products out on the market right now.”

He observes that customers are also favoring handcrafted products and lifestyle brands that speak to both genders and align with their personal values, versus mass-produced products and performance brands that predominately target men.

For example, Seattle WA-based Peak Sherpa’s products feature Tsampa, a high-altitude mountain barley grown in the Himalayas and used by Sherpas on Mt. Everest. “Tsampa is a low glycemic food that provides steady energy rather than a spike and crash,” says Yena Hu, director of business development for the Certified B Corp. “A lot of consumers want clean ingredients and we’re hoping that Tsampa will become what quinoa is now — the next ancient grain.”

Pickle juice is another new and somewhat offbeat addition to the nutrition category. “The focus on nutrition as a whole is growing,” says Filip Keuppens, VP–global sales and marketing at The Pickle Juice Company. “Athletes used to just eat carbs the night before an event and protein afterwards — nutrition has really changed.”

He observes that athletes are starting to turn away from sugary products and toward savory, as evidenced by the brand’s fast-growing business in the run specialty channel. With a beet root shot, recovery shot and a CBD product all currently in development, The Pickle Juice Company is quickly evolving into a functional beverage business.

Certainly, variety is the spice of life. “Nutrition remains a primary category among the running specialty channel and is only becoming increasingly relevant as consumers become more aware of the importance of optimal fueling for performance and more conscientious about the ingredients in their food,” says Sara Tlamka, brand director for Honey Stinger. “As a result, consumers are actively looking for more options to refine their own nutrition routine and the category continues to expand to meet that demand.”

Other trends in the category include a move toward bars scored or packaged in bite-size pieces, the launch of more easy-to-digest isotonic drink mixes, the use of caffeine in items designed for endurance athletes and the gradual introduction of more women’s-specific products.

As far as women’s products are concerned, there are mixed opinions on the necessity of such formulations. Magda Boulet, an elite marathoner and head of GU Energy’s R&D, works to create products in a variety of forms and flavors, but also concludes that because men’s and women’s digestive systems are very similar, there’s not much point in creating gender-specific versions.

Conversely, Michael Folan, Chief Powder Maker at Infinit Nutrition, believes there’s a need. “Women often don’t need as much salt or calories as guys, and generally do not like salty flavors anyway. So there are real reasons why a ladies’ formula is better. But I will say that given the option, many ladies will buy the guys’ mix for some reason.”

Bridging the gap is Muir Energy’s McNally, who remarks, “Women and men often go toe-to-toe in ultra-running races, but as their physiologies are different, so are their nutritional needs. Muir does not make products specifically for either gender, but we do offer products that are especially rich in specific minerals (e.g. iron, magnesium), a common deficiency in women but also in some men, especially vegans.”

Also taking the middle road is JJ Rudman, director of category sales at plant-based nutrition product maker ATAQ (which just changed its brand name from MODe). “As we continue to develop new products – not to mention that one of our co-founders is a woman – the importance of offering women’s-specific product is top of mind. If it makes sense we’re going to do it, but we won’t come out with a marketing gimmick or a me-too women’s product,” he says.

Due to the growing number and diversity of products flooding retail shelves, brands, to quote Ricky Ricardo, “Got some ‘splainin to do.” To ward off confusion, most companies provide in-store POP and sales staff education, and often hand out free samples and info to consumers at in-store demos, races and other events. Local as well as major event partnerships and sponsorships also figure into the equation.

“Because there is so much conflicting information and misinformation about sports nutrition, specialty run retailers are an important source of information and credibility,” says Annie Dwyer, specialty sales manager at Skratch Labs. “Every body is unique, so product recommendations from employees, run clubs and sampling products at retailer-hosted events are great opportunities for customers to learn more about how best to hydrate and fuel before, during, and after a run.”

Looking ahead, “the trend for sports nutrition products to be less engineered, adopting more best practices from natural foods sourcing, continues,” says Steve Anderson, Nuun’s national sales manager-sports specialty. “The desire for performance nutrition that prioritizes all-natural, non-GMO, and organic sourcing is still front of mind for the consumer. Now that we know we don’t have to compromise performance, or experience, just because something is ‘better for you’ means we can enjoy our sports nutrition without regret.”