Maybe it’s my upcoming half marathon or the e-course I have been crafting (more on that later in this post!), but I have running fuel on the brain. Not just what running fuel I plan on using during the Lake Sammamish Half Marathon (I already have my fueling strategy outlined), but how different every runner is when it comes to training and fueling and how you can choose the best running fuel for you.
I remember how much the plethora of gels, chews, and powders overwhelmed me when I first began training for long distance races. I had no idea where to start: GU? Clif Bars? Powerade? I went to my local running store and bought one of everything: Honey Stinger gels, Clif Blox chews, Hammer gels, Nuun, GU gels, and so on, and just began trying them on my long runs.
Almost two years and several races later, I finally have found what works for me (I hope!) in terms of running fuel. Mastering my fueling and hydration for training and races is one of my goals for 2016, so of course I immersed myself in research and lots of practice with fueling on runs over the past couple months.
If you’re trying to determine how to fuel on a run and what sports nutrition products to use, follow these five simple and practical guidelines for how to choose the best running fuel for you.
How to Choose the Best Running Fuel for You
Read the Label
Can your stomach be sensitive to sugar or certain preservatives? Read the label on the back of any sports nutrition products you try. Look for how much sugar they add, what types of sugars, whether they contain caffeine, and how many grams of carbohydrate they contain. Not only will this aid you in selecting fuel that will not cause stomach upset, it will also help you in developing your cohesive fueling and hydration strategy.
Athletes with sensitive stomachs usually prefer fuel with less sugar (such as Hammer gels), while athletes who digest sugar with no problems may receive an extra energy boost from higher-sugar gels such as Clif Bar gels and chews.
Some products contain extra sodium, which may be beneficial for heavy sweaters who have higher salt needs. However, the additional sodium and salty flavor could also increase your thirst while running, which isn’t desirable.
Experiment on Your Training Runs
What works for your training partner, coach, or favorite running blogger may not work for you. What worked for you a couple years ago may not even work for you now! The only way to find out? Experiment with several different types and brands of running fuel. Try different products and note how they work in your training log.
Pay attention to how your body responds to your fuel of choice during a run and afterwards. Did you experience any GI distress? Did you stay energized or feel fatigued near the end? How was your appetite afterwards? Did you feel bloated?
In addition to experimenting with different products, test out different flavors. I find that Hammer apple cinnamon gel is easy to eat while running (great for races and hard long workouts), while the peanut butter flavor helps me during long runs thanks to the bit of fat. I’ve also tried flavors of my preferred Hammer gel that I don’t like, such as the chocolate hazelnut (chocolate is for after runs, not during).
Just as individual preferences on tastes vary, so do individual preferences on the texture of food. Your texture preferences directly impact how what type of running fuel is best for you. If soft foods make you want to gag, then a gel may not be the ideal choice for you.
You should also select a running fuel that you find easy to consume while running at a moderate to fast pace. Once you find a texture that you can tolerate (let’s be honest, none of these products are foods you’d want to eat as a mid-afternoon snack), try it on a race pace run. I personally prefer Hammer gels and don’t choose any chews for this reason, since I’m not a fan of chewing while running.
Train Your Stomach
I have discussed training your stomach to handle fuel before, but it is so necessary for runners that it bears repeating. Our stomachs are not designed to digest while we’re running. When you run, blood flow redirects from being equally distributed to being delivered primary to the working muscles, with organs such as the stomach and intestines receiving less blood flow. With less blood flow, digestion becomes more difficult during a run (and you become more prone to GI distress).
However, just like you can train yourself to sustain a certain pace or run a particular distance, you can also train your stomach to handle fuel during a run. While glycogen depletion runs can hold their place in long distance running, you also want to include long runs where you practice taking in sports nutrition products or whole food alternative at regular intervals (usually every 45-60 minutes on runs longer than 90 minutes).
Try Whole Food Alternatives
You’re not limited to eating only specially designed sports nutrition products on the run. If your stomach can handle it (and you can chew them without choking), there are several whole food (or, at least, real food) alternatives to fuel your run.
Raisins, dates, whole food bars such as LaraBars (or, even better, a homemade version), boiled and salted potatoes, or even organic gummies can provide quick-releasing and easily digestible carbs to fuel your miles.
Clif Bar makes Organic Energy food packets which offer portability and ease of consumption while containing whole foods such as oats, quinoa, fruit and vegetables purees, and potatoes.
If you do opt for whole food running fuel, consider carrying an low/no carb electrolyte beverage such as Enduropacks, Nuun, Ultima, or coconut water with you to ensure you are getting enough electrolytes during your run.
Master Your Fueling and Hydration E-Course
Want to learn more about how to fuel and hydrate before, during, and after your runs? Want to finally master your fueling and hydration strategy for racing?
On March 14, I’m launching an email course designed specifically for runners to guide you in how to master your fueling and hydration for training and racing. This 6 week course includes detailed lessons delivered directly to your inbox, weekly worksheets, and guidance from a certified running coach (me!).
The course covers everything you need and want to know about hydration, electrolytes, how to avoid bonking and GI distress during runs and races, fueling on the run, eating for recovery, and how to create, test, and perfect your race day fueling and hydration strategy.
All of this costs just $97! That’s less than a pair of running shoes for the knowledge and guidance that will lead you to years of successful training and racing.
You can sign up using the button or read more about the Mastering Your Fueling and Hydration E-Course here! Even if you don’t sign up, I’d appreciate it if you shared the link.
Linking up with Fitness, Health, and Happiness.
What do you eat during a run?
What foods do you crave after a run?
What’s the weirdest/most unusual type of mid run fuel you’ve tried?
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