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Ask any runner about how to fuel during long runs, and you’ll hear a variety of opinions: “Drink sports drinks, they make it easier to stay hydrated.” “Don’t drink sports drinks, they’re full of artificial colors.” “Gels are a perfect fueling choice.” “Gels are too hard to get down.” “You should eat real food.” “You don’t really need to eat at all.”
Sound familiar? Trying to sort through all that can get exhausting, and ultimately isn’t helpful.
Here’s the actual deal: Fueling is important during long runs, but your choice of what to fuel with lends itself to flexibility. Ultimately, all of our bodies are different and therefore tolerate things differently. You’ll no doubt see a majority of athletes fueling with gels, blocks, sports drinks, or other commercial products. And there’s honestly nothing wrong with that—sports products are engineered to be absorbed properly and help you perform.
But you can also try fueling with “real foods”—meaning foods that you can buy from the grocery store that aren’t necessarily made for sports nutrition. As long as your stomach tolerates them, real foods can be just as effective as sports nutrition products.
How Much Should You Eat On A Run?
Let’s start with the basics—how much fuel to take in during training and racing. “After about 60 minutes of endurance based exercise, glycogen stores in the muscles will begin to deplete without supplementation,” says Monica Gonzales, a nutrition coach.
Your fuel should contain easily digestible carbohydrates, in the following amounts based on the length of time you are training or racing:
- Less than 75 minutes: No fuel needed.
- 1:15 to 3 hours: 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour.
- 3+ hours: 30 to 90 grams of carbohydrate per hour (This is highly individualized; prolonged activity may require more fuel to maximize performance).
This means if you’re going out for a quick five-miler, you don’t need any fuel. But if you’re going out for a long 15-mile training run, you’ll want to have some sort of carbohydrate to fuel your muscles.
If you’re sitting there shaking your head thinking, But I don’t need fuel, I’ve run 2 hours before without any, that might work for you, and that’s great. But these recommendations are based on the research, which the majority of athletes will perform better when they fuel properly according to these guidelines.
Real Food Fueling Options
“Whole foods are always the best choice over engineered products because of the wide variety and complexity of nutrients available,” says Gonzales. Though gels and other engineered nutrition products are designed to have an exact mix of nutrients for runners (and they are admittedly more convenient), she still recommends whole foods because they are easier for the body to digest and can be more budget friendly.
Look for foods that are rich in easily digestible carbohydrates and that contain little fat or fiber, since these slow digestion and can cause stomach upset.
So what are those options? Bananas and raisins are two choices that tend to work well for many endurance athletes and have been proven to be as effective as sports nutrition products in research. (Seriously—there are actual studies comparing bananas and raisins to gels and sports drinks in endurance athletes.) “I love dried apricots and whole bananas for runners because of the simple carbohydrates and an extra bonus of being high in potassium,” says Gonzales. Potassium is one of the electrolytes that gets lost in sweat.
How to Build a Real Food Fueling Plan
To build your real food plan, start by choosing an option or two from below that you enjoy.
If you’re a runner who tends to have GI issues, Gonzales recommends limiting high-fat foods before the run because foods high in fat (and fiber) slow digestion and put stress on your digestive tract. “Mid-run fuel may also be lighter for runners with GI issues,” she adds, “which means they’ll need to focus their replenishment in their pre and post and workout meals.”
- Dried apricots (6 pieces = 29 grams carbohydrate)
- Bananas (1 medium sized banana = 23 grams carbohydrate)
- Raisins (1/4 cup = 29 grams carbohydrate)
- Dates (2 medjool dates = 35 grams carbohydrate)
- Applesauce squeeze packets (1 pack = 20 to 25 grams of carbohydrate)
- Salted boiled potatoes or sweet potatoes (1 small potato or ½ large potato = 30 grams carbohydrate)
- Low-fiber dry cereal (nutrition varies based on type)
- White bread with honey or jam (1 slice + 2 Tbsp. = approximately 45 grams carbohydrate)
- Pretzels (25 mini pretzels = approximately 30 grams carbohydrate)
Then figure out the portion size that would equal 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Plan to eat about that much every hour of training/racing. Remember that fueling with real food requires a bit more pre-planning than you might be used to.
Wondering how you might carry some of these things, like bananas or potatoes ,along the course? One trick is to mash them up before the race start and put them in a plastic baggie, then tear off the corner of the bag along the course and eat it like you would a gel. Or try making your own energy balls.
Document your training fuel in a journal so you can track the fueling plans that were successful for you and if any unintended issues arose with them. This will help you figure out your optimal race-day strategy.
Keep in mind that everyone’s body is different. Real food may help some excel, while others may prefer engineered sports nutrition products. Engineered products are generally customized to provide the right types and amounts of different types of sugars, so they may be more easily tolerated and absorbed compared to regular foods.
But as Gonzales points out: “There is always value in knowing exactly what is going into your body and omitting preservatives and additives that will be inflammatory.”