Tired of fueling your long runs with sticky packets of goop? Here are some other options.
By Pamela Nisevich Bede, M.S., R.D.
This week on Facebook, we asked readers to share their most pressing nutrition questions. Thanks to all who submitted a question (and please keep them coming, as we will continue to address many of your questions in upcoming editions of Fuel School). This week’s post answers the question posed by Krista Meyer, which was essentially “What are some nutritionally sound alternatives to gels?”
In order to cover 26.2 (or even 13.1) miles without hitting the wall, you’re going to need to eat along the way. But ask any runner how they suggest taking in some simple carbs (the best sort of fuel for working muscles), and they’re likely to grimace a bit and then say one dreaded word…. gel. There, I said it. The secret is out. Most runners, myself included, don’t look forward to having to gulp sickeningly sweet, goopy gel and chase with water in order to power through runs. Sure, there are runners out there who like gels, and a larger population that may not like gels but tolerate them and practically consider them an initiation into long-distance running.
To avoid gels, many runners opt for chews, blocks, and beans. A review of these alternatives has been covered here. More and more, it seems that runners would like alternatives to all things gels, chews, and beans—that is to say, they’d like to know what “real” food will work to fuel them during a long run. As runners and healthy eaters, we are instructed to avoid simple sugars most of the time, and many of us don’t want to “spend” our daily calorie allotment on ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup. That being said, it’s important to keep in mind that working muscles actually like a blend of simple carbohydrates, such as maltodextrin plus fructose, and many sport fuels are designed to be easy to digest and easy to transport.
So in order to determine if a whole food will successfully fuel your muscles without weighing you down or wreaking havoc on your GI system, keep the following in mind: The food should be rich in carbohydrates while being low in protein and fat (do not fuel up on beef jerky or trail mix comprised of nuts). The food should be low in fiber. Everyone’s system is different, but as a starting point, aim for foods that contain less than 3-5 grams of fiber per serving, and see how your gut tolerates the item. I’ve worked with some runners who took in lots of fibrous whole foods during a long run and did just fine. I’ve worked with others who run for the bushes at the mere thought of fiber.
Also, be sure the food item is relatively easy to transport. Think it over: Would a bowl of spaghetti be a good source of fuel for a long run? Probably. Is it easy to transport? Absolutely not. Finally, your total carb intake during each hour of a long run needs to be between 30-60 grams per hour, so once you find some real foods that work for you, tally up the total carbs to make sure you are taking in enough. If your “real” foods fall a little short, consider adding in some sports drink or maybe a chew or two (if you can) to top off your tank. For a list of “real” foods that meet the criteria listed above, check out the list below.
- 2 each, 3” Fig cookies — 198 calories, 40 grams carbs
- 1 small box raisins — 123 calories, 33 grams carbs
- ½ cup mashed sweet potato — 125 calories, 29 grams carbs, 4 grams fiber – (Hint: To carry, put mashed sweet potato in a sandwich bag with zipper and tear a hole in the corner when ready to eat.)
- 1 medium peeled and sliced apple — 77 calories, 21 grams carbs, 2 grams fiber
- 1 oz low fat bagel chips — 128 calories, 19 grams carbs
- 1 oz hard pretzels — 108 calories, 23 grams carbs – (Hint: grab the extra salty kind if you’re a salty sweater in need of extra sodium.)
- 1 large banana — 121 calories, 31 grams carbs – (Hint: Try freezing the banana the night before and carrying in a fuel belt, or better yet, a hydration pack. It will change colors, but if you consume sooner than later, it shouldn’t be too mushy. You can also mash a banana and transport like you would sweet potatoes.)