As runners it seems like we are flooded with information about the latest and greatest in sports nutrition for athletes. Trying to sort it all out can be exhausting and confusing. So what’s best — gels, shots, electrolytes, salt tablets, bars, chews, sports drinks, protein, caffeine, or blocks? It can be very overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, sports performance products absolutely can have a place, and many of them do assist performance. However, you can also use real foods that are often less expensive and more readily available as well.
With so many options available, why would you want to use real food? Well, some athletes experience gastrointestinal issues. Others want to eliminate preservatives, chemicals, concentrated sugars, and byproducts. Others find it can help with performance, and some just like the way they feel when fueling with real food. It’s all personal. Many runners use gels and chews because they are convenient and portable, have a long shelf life, and are available on most race courses; especially in long-distance events.
Remember that the products and foods you consume on your run should be rich in carbohydrates while being low in protein and fat. You also should watch your fiber and include sodium somewhere as well. Remember that what will work for you may be highly individualized. I recommend trying out some of these changes slowly and on shorter runs first.
Mid-run real food options:
- Raisins. A handful of raisins can deliver around 33 grams of carbs and easy to carry in a plastic bag.
- Dates. Dates are easy for the body to digest, and just one serving has about 20–30 grams of carbohydrates. They are also lightweight for easy carrying.
- Medium peeled apple. An apple has about 20 grams of carbohydrates and is easy to grab and go.
- Honey. One tablespoon of honey contains about 17 grams of simple carbohydrates that get into your system quickly. You can try a zip-lock bag or add honey to your water bottle for a refreshing kick mid run.
- Pretzels. About 25–30 small pretzels have about 30 grams of carbohydrates and are low in fiber while giving you a sprinkle of sodium as well. Be careful though, because they can be hard to chew while running.
- Bananas. One banana contains about 30 grams of carbohydrates and can be stored in a running belt easily or a zip-lock bag for easy access. Don’t be afraid if it turns colors. It’s still a good choice.
- Frozen grapes. Frozen grapes can be really refreshing and have around 30 grams of carbohydrates in one cup.
- Salt water. If you worry about sodium, add a few tablespoons of table salt into your water bottle and avoid the sports drinks. Just remember to get the carbs as well.
- Candy. OK … candy isn’t really “real food,” but it’s still an option. I like gummy fish, jelly beans, and marshmallows for high carbohydrates and easy absorption.
Overall, the key to being successful is try, try, try. You will find something that works for you. It may take some experimenting, so don’t be afraid to do that. Also, it’s OK to blend if you can’t get everything you need naturally. The important part is having options that may work well for you and meet your unique needs. If you still are having issues, also consider consulting a sports dietitian for individualized planning and assistance.