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The global sports nutrition market accounted for $28 billion in 2016, according to a report released by Zion Market Research, and it’s expected to grow to more than $45 billion by 2022. With so many brands, flavors, supplements and products out there, it’s no wonder runners get overwhelmed by the options. Gel? Chew? Drink? Tablet? Rather than risk an upset stomach, sometimes it’s easier to skip the nutrition altogether, which is okay for shorter distances (like 5K and 10K), but won’t work once you start longer runs, such as half and full marathons.
“The half marathon and marathon are the only distances that require calories, and the half is dependent on finish time,” says Brooke Schohl, M.S., R.D., a board-certified sports dietitian at Fuel to the Finish in Scottsdale, Ariz. If you’re going to finish a half marathon in less than 2 hours, you can get away with using no fuel during the race; if the race will take you 2–3 hours, you’ll probably need to fuel just once. And for a marathon or longer, you’ll always require fuel, she says—the number of fueling sessions just depends on your estimated finish time (see page 39 for a more specific guide to race-day fueling based on your distance).
As far as what you should be using to fuel, Schohl says the key is to practice in pre-race workouts. “There are so many sports nutrition products out there, the choice you make really depends on the length of your race and how your body handles the nutrients,” she says. “Many of the questions surrounding race-day fueling—calories per hour, type of product, electrolytes, etc.—are highly variable and should be determined using a trial-and-error approach during training. I reserve protein- and fat-containing products for longer races—the marathon distance and longer,” she says. But above all, make sure you follow the golden rule of sports nutrition: “Nothing new on race day!”
To find the right products for you, start with doing some research—read reviews online, ask your running buddies what brands, products and flavors they use, or ask your local running store for its most popular products. If you’re having a particularly tough time finding nutrition that your body can handle, Schohl recommends recruiting a sports dietitian for help. “The choices are overwhelming, and unfortunately many of the options out there are not healthy and lead to a variety of gastrointestinal issues,” she says.
But once you do find products that work for your body, “then sports nutrition will provide energy, boost performance and lead to a more successful race!” Schohl says.
Muir Energy, $30 For 12-Pack
These whole-food energy gels are made with no more than six ingredients—all of which are organic and vegan. They’re sorted into slow-burning flavors (made with nut butters) and fast-burning (made with fruit, coconut palm nectar and blackstrap molasses). The favorite flavor in the taste test was the fast-burning Red Raspberry, thanks to its concentrated, sweet yet tart taste. Each gel packet contains 115–150 calories and 290–350 milligrams of potassium. If you’re looking for an extra kick, the gels are offered in Mate flavors, with 90 milligrams of caffeine derived from Yerba Mate extract.
BEET’UMS, $34 For 30-Chew Package
Research has confirmed in recent years that beets can boost endurance performance—the deep-red veggie is especially helpful for enhancing the body’s ability to create nitric oxide, which improves blood flow, leading to things like increased oxygen delivery and higher energy. These beet-infused sports performance chews are a simple, cost-effective way to reap the benefits of beets without the mess of beet powders or juice. Each chew is individually wrapped and provides a quick hit of calories (35 per chew) and carbs (6 grams), and the chocolate pomegranate flavor is candy-esque, with a Laffy Taffy–like texture and a very subtle beet flavor. We like them taken with water, and they’re great for a pre-race boost or mid-race pick-me-up (though the sticky chews are tricky to remove from their wrappers while on the move).
Maurten Drink Mix 160, $42 For Box Of 18 Packets
The simple black-and-white design of this carbohydrate-packed sports drink matches its simple ingredient list—it uses only five. Each 160-calorie packet, when mixed with water, provides your body with high concentrations of maltrodextrin and fructose, adding up to a whopping 39 grams of carbs (13 grams of which are sugar), which, through the brand’s patent-pending technology, transports water to your intestine by converting to a “hydrogel” in your stomach. The clear drink dissolves easily when mixed with the recommended amount of water, and we loved the light yet sweet taste—it doesn’t have a “flavor” per se, but rather tastes like sugar water. Available in both a 160 version and a 320 version (referring to the number of calories per packet), you can use either, depending on the intensity of your workouts or races.