It is a belief almost universally held by runners that gels, while not enjoyable, must be consumed for energy on long runs. What other options are there: chugging neon-hued Gatorade or risking a bonk during your race – or so it seems.
Gels are highly concentrated forms of carbohydrates that can be consumed in one swig and must be taken with water. Typically, gels are sticky sweet in taste – and sticky when they inevitably get on your hands mid-run. Many runners don’t like the taste but rely on gels out of necessity. However, there is another option – you can fuel long runs with whole foods.
I’ll admit, there is a benefit to gels. They are convenient and easy to eat in a race situation and for some runners, gels work well. But gels are by far not the only option when it comes to fueling long runs. Whole foods provide an excellent alternative, although they can be intimidating for runners accustomed to gels. In this post, I will discuss how to fuel long runs with whole foods.
Why Fuel Long Runs with Whole Foods?
For some runners, gels can cause GI upset on runs. The concentration of carbohydrates can be difficult to digest if taken all at once (which is why you want to sip your gels slowly if you do take them). This can cause bloating, cramping, and general discomfort, especially if you are taking several gels over the course of a marathon. Some runners will reach the miles of the marathon where fueling is pivotal and diverge from their training plan because gels are off-putting at that point in the race.
Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy on a run, but they are not the only source of energy (especially for female runners, who burn a higher percentage of fat than men at the same intensity). By opting for whole foods, you will still consume ample carbohydrates while also taking in some fats and small amounts of protein as well. This can reduce GI distress and improve energy levels.
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 is not fun to eat, nor does it 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.
- Budget-Friendly: Depending on what you use, whole foods are a budget-friendly alternative to gels.
Whole Foods 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:
- Honey Stinger Waffles/GU 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
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 these reusable running fuel flasks.
What You Want to Avoid:
- Too much protein: While a little will increase satiety, too much protein can slow down digestion, thus causing GI distress and a slower release of energy. 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. That said, female runners in particular may find some fat beneficial on the run, since women burn a higher percentage of fat during exercise compared to men.
- High volume foods: You want to pick calorically dense foods, so that you aren’t eating as much volume while running. 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 30-45 grams of carbs per hour, depending on the intensity, your height and weight, and gender. Another option that Stacy T. Sims, author of ROAR, recommends for female runners is approximately 0.9-1.13 food calories for every pound of bodyweight per hour of running; so if you weigh 130 pounds, aim for 130 calories from a combination of carbs and fat every hour.
- 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 way is electrolytes in your fluids. Pick a hydration mix such as Nuun Performance, Skratch Labs Sports Hydration Mix, or Osmo Hydration. Whole foods also require plenty of fluids to digest (and really, you should be consuming sufficient fluids during a long run – don’t let yourself become dehydrated), so drink at frequent, regular intervals throughout the run.
- Spread out your fuel: Since whole foods are less concentrated than gels, you want to spread out your calories more throughout the run. Start fueling earlier and take smaller amounts at more frequent intervals. This method 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, as you do not have to manipulate packages or large pieces while running. Smaller bites are easier to eat while breathing heavily.
- Adapt your nutrition for race day: If you are nervous about using whole foods on race day, you can still use whole foods throughout training. This approach can be beneficial – you still have quick, easy-to-eat fuel on race day, but your palate isn’t fatigued on gels from weeks of training with them. Alternatively, you can take a combination of whole foods early in the race and gels near the end of the race. Whether you choose whole foods, gels, or a combination of the two, practice your race day fueling on a couple of your peak long runs leading up to the race.
Personally, I switched to whole foods instead of gels at the start of this year. I might still use gels for racing (or, more likely, a combination of whole foods and gels). I had developed palate fatigue from gels and wanted to try something different, and I found that Honey Stinger waffles provided me with energy, worked on my stomach, and were more satisfying than a gel. I break the waffle into four or five pieces before the run and slowly eat over the course of several miles in the middle of the run.
If you want to learn more about using whole foods on long runs, as well as other sports nutrition topics such as gut training, avoiding the wall in your next race, and how to use caffeine and other supplements to race, you may be interested in my Fuel Your Fastest Running E-Course! This course lasts 4 weeks, with twice-per-week email lessons and videos, plus the option to schedule a call for individual guidance at the end of the course. You can register at any time and learn more here!
Have you tried whole foods on a long run? What worked for you?