I’ll never forget the first time I tried an endurance gel. I was about 5 miles into my very first half marathon, and my older sister handed me a packet of berry flavored GU. I had completely neglected to train or prepare for this race, so needless to say, the fact that I might need mid-race nutrition never crossed my mind. I had never seen one of these gels before, and asked her what I was supposed to do with it, to which she replied “eat it”. I, imagining something of the consistency of a delicious fruity jam, or maybe even frosting, eagerly put the packet up to my lips and squirted the substance in. And then I immediately started to gag. My sister couldn’t contain her laughter, as I stopped dead in my tracks, berry GU clinging to my face in a sticky mess, yelling “what the hell did you just give me?!!?” It was a moment we both look back and laugh about.
Since that fateful day nearly 10 years ago (ack!) I’ve tried nearly every sort of manufactured endurance fuel out there. Unfortunately, I’ve also suffered through countless races and training runs where I was battling more than just tired legs…but an angry gastrointestinal tract. Many of the artificial ingredients and sweeteners added to these products simply do not sit well in my stomach, as is the case with many other athletes. But fueling the body during a long distance run, such as a marathon, is necessary for the majority of athletes. Consuming carbohydrates during a long run will help sustain blood glucose and muscle glycogen levels, delaying fatigue and exhaustion. So what are those of us who have a hard time stomaching these endurance fuel products supposed to do?
Eat real food.
And by real, I don’t necessarily mean “whole” or unprocessed, but simply traditional foods that are not marketed as an endurance specific fuel. While many of these products may boast performance enhancing claims, they are certainly not necessary for success as a runner. If the gels DO work for you, then by all means continue to use them. But…real foods can be equally as effective in fueling your long run. Now, it is important to note that my background is in exercise science and not nutrition, but these are all foods that have helped me stay fueled over the miles, without reaching for the gels or sport drinks.
Pretzels are made from refined carbohydrates, so they are simple to digest. A serving of pretzels contains typically contains around 200 calories, 2 grams of fat, 48 grams of carbohydrates, and 814 milligrams of sodium, which will aid in replenishing lost electrolytes. I don’t know about you, but I often crave salt when I’m running, especially on hot days. Further the bland taste may be palatable to athletes with sensitive stomachs while running.
High in natural sugar and a concentrated source of carbohydrates, dried fruit is an easy to pack, convenient choice for fueling on the run. For example, dried dates contain 31 grams of carbohydrates in a serving of five, and raisins contain 31 grams per quarter cup. Stay away from dried fruits that are higher in fiber, such as dried apples, as they are harder to digest while running. Or worse…may send you sprinting for the port-a-potty or the woods.
These are my favorite new fuel discovery. Initially marketed to the discerning palate of a toddler, the easy to carry pouches pack PERFECTLY in my hydration pack. Further, they are typically re-sealable, making it easy to take a few sips from the pouch, and save the rest for later. Averaging from 60-120 calories per pouch and around 25+ grams of carbohydrates, these pouches are typically all natural and made of very few ingredients. Be sure to check the nutritional information though: some pouches pack far more of a nutritional punch, while others have far less calories per pouch.
Honey may just be nature’s version of a sports gel. According to one study, blood glucose and heart rate were increased by honey and sports gels with no significant differences observed in insulin levels. Many companies now sell natural honey in small, easy to carry sticks or packets (affiliate link)that are convenient for runners to carry.
Runners and bananas simply belong together. Why else would they be handed out more readily than finisher’s medals at the end of every race? Full of natural sugars, a banana on average contains 140 calories, 36 grams of carbohydrates and three grams of fiber. It comes in its very own convenient packaging, making it easier to carry, and further, is often found at aide stations along race courses (so you don’t always have to bring your own!) .
Baked Potato Wedges
Potatoes seem to be the candy of the ultra running world! While perhaps not the easiest source of fuel to carry while running, potatoes pack a healthy fuel punch for endurance athletes. White potatoes are rich in fast release carbohydrates, and sweet potatoes contain 34 grams of energy enhancing carbohydrate per 4 ounces. Add salt to the potatoes to help replenish lost electrolytes.
Though certainly not an all-natural, real food source such as many of the options listed above, gummy candies such as Swedish fish, jelly beans, or gummy bears are composed of fast digesting, simple sugars which will quickly reach the blood stream. Further, the sweet taste may be more appealing to some athletes while running compared to the bland taste of other real food alternatives.
Added bonus to all of the above? They are typically more cost effective than the sports specific products. As always, BE SURE to test these new foods out on training runs instead of during a race, just incase your digestive system doesn’t react well to any of the foods. Also keep in mind that just because your stomach agrees with these foods on a day to day basis, doesn’t mean it will react the same while your body is exercising. Better to be safe than sorry…and in the port-a-potty.
What food items do you use to fuel your long runs and races?
*affiliate links used in this post