Whole Food Running Fuel: Gel Alternatives for Marathons and Ultras

Whole Food Running Fuel

Sports nutrition products are wonderful. They are convenient and easy to eat in a race situation. Gels and chews are specifically formulated to be easy to digest and deliver the energy you need when running. However, not every runner likes gels or chews.

Whole food running fuel provides an alternative. Ultra runners may prefer some whole foods, especially for races longer than 50 miles. Some 5-6 hour marathoners like to include whole foods in their fueling strategy to avoid feeling hungry. Or, you may find that whole foods are a better fit for your budget or environmental practices. It is important to note that fueling with whole foods is not morally superior to sports nutrition products, nor is it “healthier”. Rather, whole foods are an alternative to sport nutrition products.

Why Use Whole Food Running Fuel?

The reasons for choosing whole food running fuel varies. Some runners may be conscious about environmental waste and choose whole food running fuel to reduce plastic waste. If you spend five or more hours racing a marathon or ultra, you may find you need to eat more than just gels and chews. For ultra-runners and 5+ hour marathoners, whole foods help them get in the calories they need over several hours.

For ultra-runners and 5+ hour marathons, whole foods offer more than just carbohydrates. The International Society of Sport Nutrition recommends 5-10 grams of protein per hour for ultra-marathons, in addition to carbohydrates. The small amount of protein reduces muscle breakdown during a long bout of exercise. Protein will also keep you from feeling hungry during your race.

However, it is important to think about why you want to use whole food running fuel. Sport nutrition products are designed with quick sugars for a reason. Your body experiences a different insulin response during exercise. The sugars you ingest in running gels and sports drinks will be transported to your muscles for energy; they will not spike your blood sugar as you would experience at rest. Sport nutrition products are designed to be easily carried and consumed while running. The carbohydrate ratios in gels are meant to be quickly absorbed so you can keep running strong. Whole food running fuel is not superior; it is an alternative option.

Some other reasons to fuel your long runs with whole foods include:

  • Novelty: Palate fatigue is a term for when you just can’t stand to eat another gel or another pack of sports chews. Whole foods are something different, both in terms of taste and texture. If you find yourself bored with one type of whole foods fuel, there are a wider variety of options.
  • Reward Stimulus: A gel does not always taste good. A thin waffle or a cut-up sandwich, on the other hand, does taste good – and the pleasure from the taste stimulates the reward center of the brain. This boost can be beneficial on a long training run.
  • Managing appetite: When you run for five or more hours, you may find that you need some fats and proteins to manage your appetite.
  • Budget-Friendly: Depending on what you use, whole foods are a budget-friendly alternative to gels. Candy can be bought in bulk for much cheaper prices than sport nutrition products!

Whole Food Running Fuel Options

Options abound for whole foods on long runs: pick something that contains carbohydrates, is easy to eat and digest, and is portable. Some good options include:

  • Stroopwafels
  • Homemade waffles or pancakes, broken into bite-sized pieces
  • Cut-up sandwich: PB&J, Banana & Honey, Jam
  • Energy bites
  • Dried fruit: Raisins, dates, banana chips, etc.
  • Picky Bars, LaraBars, CLIF Bars, or homemade bar
  • Boiled baby potatoes with salt
  • Cooked sweet potato chunks
  • Fruit puree packets
  • Bananas
  • Pretzels (especially soft pretzel bites)
  • Graham crackers
  • Gummy candy (gummy bears, Swedish fish, Haribo, etc)

The cookbooks Run Fast, Eat Slow by Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky and Rocket Fuel by Matt Kadey offer numerous options for whole foods to eat on the run. If you like the ease of gels, you can even make your own at home and carry them in reusable running fuel flasks.

What You Want to Avoid:

  • Too much protein: While a small dose of 5-10 grams/hr will increase satiety, too much protein can slow down digestion. Slow digestion can cause GI distress. Your body needs carbs to process energy for running, so while protein-rich foods may satisfy your appetite, they are not optimal for performance.
  • Too much fat: This will vary based on the individual, but too much fat can slow digestion. You may find small doses (such as peanut butter stuffed pretzels) are tolerable, but be careful about high-fat foods.
  • High-volume foods: You want to pick calorically dense foods for whole food running fuel. Otherwise, the volume you need to eat will cause GI discomfort. High-volume food can also be tricky to carry while running.
  • High fiber: Again, this will slow digestion and could cause stomach cramping or GI distress.

How to Fuel Long Runs with Whole Foods

Using whole foods on the run requires patience and experimentation. Start on long runs that are on the easier, shorter end of the spectrum and earlier on in your training cycle. These tips will help you fuel your long runs with whole foods:

Plan for your needs:

Ideally, you want to take 30-60 grams of carbs per hour for runs lasting 1-2 hours – and 60-90 grams for runs over 2 hours. Ultra runners may want to think about their intra-run nutrition in terms of calories and aim for 200-450 calories per hour.

To hit your nutrition goals, you will need to plan accordingly. Take time to look up the calorie and/or carbohydrate amounts in the foods you are using. While calorie counting is not accurate, you should try to meet your nutrition needs during.

Any whole foods running fuel should be practiced in training. You need to know what you can tolerate! Know how much you can fit in your hydration pack, what you can chew while running, and what you like to eat before race day arrives.

Don’t skip electrolytes or fluids:

Many gels are manufactured to contain electrolytes in them. If you are fueling your long run with whole foods, you will need to take in electrolytes separately. The simplest approach is to use electrolytes in your fluids. Pick a sport drink mix such as Maurten, Skratch Labs, or Tailwind. Higher calorie mixes help you hit yrou carbohydrate goals as well as providing sodium and fluid.

Whole food running fuel require plenty of fluids to digest. If you become dehydrated, you are more likely to experience GI distress due to delayed gastric emptying. That is not to mention the performance declines that occur with even mild dehdyation! Develop a hydration plan and drink at frequent, regular intervals throughout the run.

Alternatively, you may find that supplemental salt tablets work well for you. Salt tablets allow you to replace sodium if you are relying on plain water for fluids. You can scale your salt tab consumption to your sodium losses, which lets you dial that in on a hot day.

Spread out your fuel:

You may need to take in large volumes of fuel to hit your carbohydrate goals. So, whole food approaches to fueling may involve eating as often as every 15-20 minutes. Start fueling earlier and take smaller amounts at more frequent intervals.

This approach is effective no matter what you use (even if you use gels or chews), as it maintains blood flow to the stomach muscles and therefore promotes gastric emptying. Going too long without any fuel can delay gastric emptying as the blood flow directs to your working muscles and away from your stomach. Delayed gastric emptying creates that sensation of a heavy, full stomach and nausea that runners dread.

Divide it into bite-sized pieces before you start running. This simple step will make eating whole foods on a long run much easier, since you do not have to manipulate packages or large pieces while running. Smaller bites are easier to eat while breathing heavily. 

Mix with gels if it helps you

There is no rule that says you can only use gels or only use whole foods. Ultra runners and 5+ hour marathoners may benefit from a combined approach. For example, an ultra runner may choose to pack gels in their pack and then eat whole foods at the aid stations. A 5+ hour marathoner may like to mix in whole foods to avoid palate fatigue from their gels. Be flexible and find the approach that works for you – without strict food rules.

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38 Responses

  1. I really want to try whole foods on long runs but I still havent tried it. I usually eat a honey stinger waffle before a run, so I havent really wanted to take one on my run too. It can take a little more planning but I definitely think it will pay off to avoid about stomach issues!

    1. I used to do the Honey Stinger before, so now that I’m doing it during I’m back to my old pre-run snack of banana and toast with PB. But there are lots of options for during the run to try!

  2. I started eating whole foods for racing and training when I started triathlon. I feel like I can eat almost anything on the bike (as long as I unwrap it before biking!) and I have a pretty big case mounted to my bike that can fit larger, whole foods. I’m not sure if I would be able to do the same in a half or full marathon but I would definitely try since I suffer from “palate fatigue!” I also drink Skratch electrolytes with my water as you know I subscribe to the Stacy Sims rule of food in your pocket and electrolytes in your bottle!

  3. I used to have a hard time consuming whole foods , but it seems to be easier now (probably because I’m so much slower ?), I have also made my own gels, and that has been the best solution for me. I use dates, a little fruit, citrus juice and a pinch of salt. They taste good and aren’t too sweet. I also occasionally use some type of chew, though I always have this feeling that somehow I’m going to choke on them!

  4. This is, indeed, how I fuel my runs. I love Rocket Fuel! And I haven’t used gels in many years. I actually like the taste of gels, and the consistency doesn’t bother me, but I prefer taking in a little more often. I also use the HoneyStinger chews.

  5. I do 1/2 marathons on the elliptical every morning. But I am the type that cannot eat prior to working out/doing cardio so I save all my whole foods for POST work out – and it just works awesome for me! Fuel me up with salmon! 😉

  6. Although I typically use gels, I have been thinking about fueling with whole foods. During my marathon on Sunday a kind spectator was handing out pretzels at mile 20 and it was like eating the best meal I’ve ever had, lol. It got me thinking about if I should incorporate more whole foods into my fueling. Thanks so much for providing a list of whole food options!

  7. Hmm….this gives me a lot to think about. While I use gels, the palate fatigue is real and something I have experienced before. Maybe I will start with throwing in a Honey Stinger waffle mid-run. It is certainly worth trying out to see how/if my gut reacts (positively or negatively).

    Thank you for the helpful information. I know we have briefly discussed before, however, I think I have continued to reach for gels because they are just easier…and I do not need to think about things as much.

    1. The honey stinger waffles are a nice because they are convenient like gels – I buy a big box so they’re always on hand. You should definitely give them a try!

  8. wait is that a totally new course? I think it is?! sounds so interesting! my stomach handles fuel pretty well while running (at least it used to lol) — I started with Trader Joe’s organic jelly beans as mid run fuel years ago then switched it up with raisins and then went to hammer gels.

  9. My iron stomach was always fine with gel, but now that I’m struggling more with a sensitive stomach this cycle I’m mixing it up. Unfortunately, nothing has really worked so I’m kind of winging it for race day and hoping my gut cooperates!! But I’m definitely going the whole food route. This is great info!

  10. This is really great advice! I’ve tried Honey Stinger waffles and they are delicious, but I’ve been too intimidated to try it out on a long run. I do like their chews and they’ve worked well. I didn’t know palate fatigue was a thing…it certainly explains why I began to really hate taking Shot Bloks a few years ago!

  11. Hi Laura! I ran my first marathon today and unfortunately experienced the dreaded digestive distress at mile 16 using gels and sports drink. After this and a few previous bad experiences with processed gels / sports drinks, I’ve decided to fuel my next half Ironman and marathon with whole foods. Thank you for these tips – definitely going to try them!

  12. How do you carry all of this? All your photos I don’t see belts or bags. Training for a half and don’t understand where I’m suppose to put all these snacks and drinks.I purchased a camelbak but its uncomfortable to run in.

    1. I often wear shorts or tights that have side cargo pockets! I used to wear the Saucony Bullet shorts all of the time, but they discontinued those I believe. Oiselle, Tracksmith, Athleta, and other brands sell styles of shorts with large pockets. I also have an Ultimate Direction vest, but I only use that when I need to carry fluids.

  13. Lots of great ideas and tips in your site – thank you! Training for a first marathon (been sports-active all my life but running only for the past 3-4 yrs), and love the idea of putting several servings into a reusable gel pouch! I found the GU pouch (holds 5 servings) and might get that. Echoing Lo above in navigating the race day fueling/hydration logistics(!), and been visiting your various posts to see what others do so I can try things out on long runs.

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