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Nutrition

No, You Don’t Really Need Those Pricey Sports Gels. Fuel Your Runs With These 4 Natural Foods

When it comes to fueling brag-worthy runs, sometimes natural selection works in your favor. Here are real-food options shown to assist top-notch performances as well as sports energy products.

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Lots of slick marketing tactics would have you believe that the only way to stand on the podium is to shell out your cash for specially designed sports nutrition products. But before sports drinks, bars and gels in every imaginable flavor became top fuel choices for runners, athletes had to shop their fridges for the nourishment necessary for optimal performance. Now, there is nothing wrong with using engineered gels and their ilk to help power your runs, but we now have data to demonstrate that real food can also let you stay ahead of the competition. Or if nothing more, minimize the flavor fatigue that is commonly associated with pounding back the berry flavored chews.

Distilled from science, here’s the natural fuel that you count on to go the extra mile. No whatchamacallits included.

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Raisins Bring the Energy

Raisins on a white table.
Photo: Erda Estremera

Parched grapes just might be one of the cheapest ways to stave off the bonk. Participants in a study by the University of California at Davis published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition ran for 80 minutes at 75% V02max and then completed a 5-K time trial while consuming water, or water and carb-based chews, or water and raisins. Researchers assumed the carbohydrate make-up of raisins including more fiber might cause stomach distress. But runners who had raisins ran equally well as those who had packaged energy chews – and both groups ran faster than those who only drank water. So it seems a few handfuls of raisins when on the move can help maintain blood glucose levels and slow the rate of muscle glycogen depletion to keep you going strong.

Action plan: During long runs, have 1/4 – 1/2 cup of raisins, which supplies 30 to 60 grams of carbs, with water every hour you run.

Runners, Go Bananas

A bunch of bananas.
Photo: Ilona Frey / Unsplash

Science has shown what professional athletes have known for years, the humble banana is effective workout fuel. In a randomized, crossover study, researchers from Appalachian State University, North Carolina had cyclists either drink a cup of Gatorade sports drink or consume half a banana and cup of water every 15 minutes during a 46-mile cycling exercise test (enough of each to provide 0.2 grams of carbs per kilogram of bodyweight every 15 minutes of activity). Both groups finished in the same amount of time and had about the same levels of blood glucose as an energy source. While bananas appear to have the natural carbs needed to power your stride, participants did report higher degrees of stomach woes including bloating after consuming 6 to 7 pieces of fruit during the exercise test, so some testing is needed to gauge tolerance.

Action plan: It’s impractical to stuff enough bananas in your jersey pockets to fuel a long run on them alone, but you could try bringing along a couple to supplement your other energy sources. Those with some black spots in their skin have higher amounts of easily digested sugars. Or try fueling on these more portable dried banana bites that are a welcome respite from sugary gels and chews.

Be Sweet on Honey

Honey in a jar.
Photo: Arwin Meil Baichoo / Unsplash

More proof that honey is nature’s sweetest treat. A Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research investigation found that endurance athletes who consumed 15 grams (about 1 tablespoon) of honey, dextrose, or a placebo containing no carbs every 16-kilometers of a 64K cycling effort were able to go faster and produce a larger power output when honey or dextrose were consumed compared to the carb-free placebo. There were no significant differences between the honey and dextrose concerning performance. Researchers suggest that consuming sugar blends such as honey, which contains both fructose and glucose, during exercise can be particularly effective at ramping up performance by improving absorption rates.

RELATED: 3 DIY Energy Bars for Your Next Run(Opens in a new browser tab)

Action Plan: You probably don’t want to take a bear-shaped bottle with you on a run, so try mixing 2 tablespoons honey and water in a gel flask and sucking one of these back for each hour of exercise. On hot runs, add a pinch of sea salt. Or treat the Honey Mini’s from Nature’s Nate’s like you would any engineered gel.

This Spud’s For You

Baby potatoes in a plastic bag.
Photo: Annie Spratt / Unsplash

Can’t stomach the thought of downing another saccharine gel? Maybe it’s time to go more savory. Consuming potato puree during endurance exercise maintains blood sugar and boosts performance just as well as energy gels do, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. In the randomized-crossover design investigation, trained athletes who took in potato puree during a 2-hour cycling challenge that included some high-intensity intervals followed by a time trail performed identically well to those taking commercial gels, and 6.5 minutes faster than those consuming no carbohydrates. During both carb-based trails, the participants got 15 grams of carbs, in either gel or potato form, every 15 minutes to supply 60 grams of carbs per hour. This is about the number of carbohydrates for each hour of endurance exercise recommended by sports dietitians. The spud and gel powered athletes saw similar increases in blood sugar and heart rate, and reported a lower perceived effort compared to when they received no carbs. Interestingly, lactate levels were higher at the end of the time trial in the carb sessions, mainly because they were going harder and could crank out more power. The upshot is that potatoes offer a very cost-effective way to fuel your endurance workouts without being left with a pocketful of sticky packets.

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One caveat is that fueling on potatoes resulted in more GI symptoms including bloating and gas than what occurred with gels. The higher rate of stomach issues was likely because the study participants had to eat more potato — 4.5 ounces per dose versus 0.8 ounces of gel — to get the necessary prescribed amount of carbohydrates. This suggests that potatoes may be best employed as part of a diverse fueling strategy rather than the sole source of your energy-boosting carbs.

Action plan: When you are out for the long haul bringing along some potato fuel is not out of the question. Simply steam or boil a few baby potatoes, which are easier to transport than larger spuds, slice them open slightly and stuff with a few sprinkles of salt. Let cool and transport in a zip-top bag.