How to use real food to fuel your long run... and skip the gels
Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Hey runner! Imagine this. It's time for your long run. You're picking out your clothing, checking the weather, and plotting out a route. Are you packing your fuel too? You should be! But maybe the idea of another gel packet or energy block or engineered sports drink makes you sick to your stomach.
I get it. I've been there. In fact, I AM there. Just last week I looked at my stash of gels and blocks and wanted to vomit. I didn't want any of them, and I knew I wouldn't eat them if I DID bring them with me on my long run.
I also knew that if I didn't consume anything on my long run, my pace would likely drop, my performance would suffer, and I'd feel sluggish. And when that happens, I lose motivation and my run goes down the drain.
It is not a fun place to be! I don't advise any runners to go out for a long run without bringing SOME kind of nutrition with them to keep them going. But what should you do if you just can't consume another Gu??
Why should you eat during a long run?
Your body uses primarily glycogen to fuel your running. Glycogen = stored carbohydrate. So carbohydrates fuel your run.
Your muscles and liver store glycogen. Unfortunately, it can only store so much of it before you use it all, usually within ~90 minutes of activity. After that, you're likely to "hit the wall" and fueling at this point will be too late - it will take a while for your body to turn fuel into energy, and you'll be sluggish.
When should I use fuel on a long run?
For any run lasting longer than ~90 minutes. Start fueling about 30 minutes into your run, and fuel every ~30 minutes after that.
What should I look for in a real food option?
You're looking for a food that is mostly carbohydrates, but not high fiber carbohydrates. As in, this is not the time for the super-seedy, 12 grain bread. You're looking for low fiber carb options that are also pretty low in fat and protein. Why low fiber? Fiber takes a lot of time to digest and cause GI discomfort. Fat and protein take longer to digest and absorb, so that could slow you down and give you a stomachache.
How much should I eat?
Your goal will be to consume 30-60 grams of carbs per hour. Portion sizes of all foods vary greatly - sometimes even among different brands or types of similar foods, so the best way to know whether you're getting that is to check the label of the food that you're eating.
What are some real food options that work well for most runners?
Dried fruit (raisins, dates, apricots, cranberries, cherries 🍒)
Applesauce (or fruit squeeze packets)
Baked potato 🥔
Jelly beans (or other sugary candy - gummy worms, Skittles, licorice) 🍬
Honey 🍯 or maple syrup
Coconut water 🥥
How should I carry it on my runs?
Use whatever works for you! Fruit or applesauce squeeze pouches are already very portable. Honey and maple syrup can be found in sticks or squeeze packets. Candy is found in "fun size" packaging. Fruit is usually already pre-packaged for you 😆 If you're using crackers or pretzels, stash them in a little baggie and put them in a pocket.
You will likely need to get creative. These items are often a bit bulkier than gels and chews (which makes those options appealing for many people), but they're not impossible to carry if you're willing to figure out how to make it work through trial and error. And if you can't carry them, keep them at home and circle back when it is time to refuel before heading out again!
How will I know if it works for me?
Everyone is different, so I don't know if pretzels or gummy bears will work better for you. You're just going to have to try it out yourself! I suggest testing them out on a shorter run, before an easy morning run, as your last fueling option before you finish your run (as in, you've got ~30 minutes to go before you're done running), or when you're close to home (or at least have access to a bathroom). This way, if anything goes awry, you can be close to home.
Why should I use real food instead of gels or chews?
You don't have to. This is a personal preference! Gels and chews are great because they WORK - that's what they were designed to do. They're also highly portable and come in a variety of flavors and textures so that you can find something that you enjoy.
That said, they can be expensive (usually $1-$3 per serving, which can add up if you need four servings per long run)! Some people dislike the tastes or textures (again, there are several options out there, so be sure to experiment) or are just sick of the same thing over and over (like me).
Can I use real food to fuel my running in other ways too?
Yes! Head here to download my guide to using real food to fuel up leading into your next big race. This free guide has all the tips and tricks you need to make sure you're ready to tackle your next half or full marathon (or ultra!) and set the stage for your next personal record... without just bingeing on pasta or eating your body weight in bread the day before.
So runner - let me know! What is your favorite real food to use to fuel your long run??
Are you a runner who wants to fuel better and run faster? Or are you a runner who wants to fuel better and feel better - to avoid hitting the wall, to feel healthy and fit, to improve your fitness level and lose weight or increase your muscle tone?
Nutrition is a HUGE part of this equation! And long run nutrition is only a small piece of the puzzle - you need to fuel right every day! But knowing what to eat and when to eat it is confusing and can be difficult.
I work with runners to help them achieve their goals - be it nailing their race day nutrition, letting go of food "rules", losing weight, or just improving their eating habits every day. Fuel better, feel better, run faster. To find out how I can help YOU, click to schedule your FREE runner's nutrition strategy session!