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No matter what distance you’re running, you need fuel to perform at an optimal level.
But how can you decide on which fuel to use? The sports nutrition product market has exploded with options in recent years, and is predicted to grow by 8 percent in the next seven years. There are dozens of options to choose from at your local running specialty store.
Tim Lyman, director of training programs at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh, says he and his employees have also noticed a shift in runners being more conscious of ingredients in products, and with that comes an increase in fear and misconceptions around certain ingredients like sugar, artificial flavorings, and amount of processing that goes into the products.
Often, running store staff are experienced athletes themselves and have a great deal of knowledge about what goes into these products. While the choices can seem overwhelming, this guide can help you tease out what snacks found in your local running store are best for your training and racing.
Basic Components of your Fueling Plan
Before diving into the different food options it’s important to have a basic understanding of the components that should be included in any fueling plan. Think of it as a delicate dance between three important pillars: fluid balance, electrolyte balance (particularly sodium), and calorie/carbohydrate intake. When the intake or concentration of one of these components is too high or too low, the system can malfunction and cause you to bonk, cramp, or have serious stomach distress.
Developing a proper fueling pan can help you determine appropriate intake for calories, carbohydrate types, individual fluid replenishment rates, and sodium intake based on your sweat losses.
Gels and Chews
The OG of the sports nutrition fueling options, these sticky, carb-rich products are the most convenient ways to get calories and carbohydrates into your system for a boost of energy during training and racing. While some athletes might have avoided them in the past due to misconceptions around sugar, processed foods, or carbohydrates, the wide assortment of gels and chews available at running stores vary greatly in their base ingredients — maltodextrin, tapioca syrup, honey or fruit concentrates are just some that you’ll find.
Table sugar itself is just another name for sucrose, a molecule made up of glucose and fructose. Both glucose and fructose are taken up during exercise and used for energy production. Other types of carbohydrates or sugars like honey, maple syrup, fruit and maltodextrin contain different proportions of glucose, fructose, or both as part of their make-up.
Sports gels come in a variety of flavors and textures, everything from “birthday cake” to “completely naked,” from thick syrup to liquids (Gu Energy, Science in Sport, Clif, Maruten, Hammer, Honey Stinger). If you are looking for a different texture option, chews (such as Clif Blocks and Skratch Chews) can allow for athletes to get in a “slow drip” of carbs in a single piece if they allow for it to sit in their mouth for a while.
Ideal For: Quick carb sources for shorter high-intensity efforts and races
Not to be mistaken for baby food (but they could be, given that they’re often in puree form), these products are typically a combination of rice, fruit, and nut butters that are blended together and packaged in small, portable fueling pouches. (Spring and Muir Energy)
Many athletes prefer these to sweeter gels because they have a smoothie-like texture, they don’t contribute as much to sweetness fatigue, and they are absorbed into the bloodstream more slowly than gels with a higher glycemic index, which can prevent crashes in blood sugar. The primary downside is that the higher fructose content (i.e. fruit) can cause GI distress.
For higher intensity efforts, they may not offer the same immediate energy boost that is needed to make you feel like you can fly. For reference, it can be beneficial to take in a mixture of glucose and fructose during exercise, but that mix should skew towards a higher glucose vs. fructose intake due to differences in processing and utilization in the body.
Ideal For: Long-range fuel for ultra-endurance efforts
If you want to get in the trifecta of your fueling plan in an all-in-one option, hydration mixes are the solution. While many hydration mixes contain only electrolytes, some contain calories and carbohydrates. No matter which type of mix you choose, having a liquid calorie and/or electrolyte source can help boost your intake without having to chew things (particularly helpful if you lose your appetite) or in hotter environments. On the flip side, while the convenience might be beneficial, relying strictly on hydration mixes can cause an upset stomach (cramping, bloating, diarrhea) for some athletes due to the potential to overwhelm the GI system with high concentrations of sugars and electrolytes. Use caution when trialing mixes and try to include both liquid and solid options into your fueling plan for best results.
Ideal For: Shorter high intensity workouts and races, ultra-distance races
Higher Calorie Hydration Mixes
Marketed as options to get you more calories in a smaller volume of liquid, these higher calorie hydration mixes (such as Maurten and Skratch Superfuel) typically contain 80-100g of carbohydrates per serving. These mixes are unique due to the carbohydrate structure and delivery methods that they contain. Skratch claims that its unique cluster DextrinTM product allows for the body to slowly break down the carbohydrate molecule and not overwhelm the gut with carbs all at once, while Maurten’s Hydrogel technology claims to encapsulate carbohydrates with alginate and pectin, which allows for more carbs to be consumed with less GI distress. While useful for some endurance athletes, these mixes may not be tolerated by all, and users should be aware of their thicker texture.
Ideal For: Longer ultra endurance events that require higher calorie-per-hour intake rates, such as Nordic skiing, mountain biking and ski mountaineering.
If hydration mixes with calories bother your stomach, but you still need to find a way to ingest your key electrolytes lost in sweat, electrolyte pills could be your ticket. Typically they contain sodium, magnesium, chloride, and potassium in a water-soluble capsule. These little pills can also be helpful if you sweat a lot of salt and just need to replace extra sodium. If you do decide to use them, use caution, as they can be overdone. Too little or too much sodium intake can cause issues such as nausea, cramping, vomiting, sloshy stomach, confusion, fatigue, and muscle weakness. It is recommended that endurance athletes undergo a clinical sodium sweat concentration test (such as a Precision Hydration Sweat Test) or undergo at-home fluid-loss testing (such as the Levelen Sweat Test) to more accurately understand their individual fluid and electrolyte targets.
Ideal For: Supplemental for salty sweaters and athletes with a sensitive stomach that can’t handle sweet hydration mixes, especially for ultra-distance endurance events in hot conditions.
Whole Food Options
In recent years, there has been a return to more whole food options in the endurance space. Kyle Jones, the manager of Independence Run and Hike specialty running store in Carbondale, Colorado, says that he’s seen a noticeable increase in sales of whole food products like stroopwafels, sports nutrition bars, food blends and even rice crispy treats as interest in all-natural products has risen among endurance athletes.
The reality is, while these products might sit easier on the stomach for some ultra endurance athletes, their use in shorter events like half marathons and marathons may not be realistic due to the slower digestion times, higher intensity of effort and more blood being diverted away from the gut.
Ideal for: Any distance over 26.2
Make a Plan
No matter what options you choose for your fuel, make sure you make a plan to test it ahead of your target event. Jones says that he has noticed a trend of more runners paying attention to the fact that they need something to fuel their activities, but that they still don’t seem to be creating a strategic plan to fit their training and racing. And while your local running shop employees might not be registered sports dietitians, they can help guide you to what products might be best to try out for your efforts. For that formal plan that fits your specific needs, consult with a sports nutrition expert!
Kylee’s mission is to separate facts from fads in the endurance nutrition space and works to provide easy nutrition solutions to help improve health and performance. Kylee is the founder and owner of her sports nutrition business Flynutrition, which helps runners, triathletes, cyclists, and skiers to learn not only the ‘why’ but the ‘how’ behind fueling for performance. Her work has appeared in Trail Runner and Women’s Running Magazines.