For our Tuesdays on the Run topic, we’re discussing running fuel options and strategies. My co-hosts Patty from My No-Guilt Life, and Erika from MCM Mama Runs have some great posts too, so make sure to check them out and find a few new ideas to keep you going on those long runs. I’ve refreshed an old post on this subject.
When I first started running 15 years ago, the closest thing to running fuel used to keep your energy up during a long run was Gatorade. Maybe there were some gels or something available, but because the internet was new (can you imagine…how did people obsess about things back then?) and I was young and only a casual runner, I didn’t know about them. In fact, the first half marathon I ran (walked, cried), only had one Gatorade stop.
Fast forward 15 years and the options for fueling on the run are just about limitless. The general idea is that your muscles hold enough glycogen (the easiest energy source for your muscles) to last for about 45-60-90 minutes (depending on what you read) of exercise. The theory is that one of the reasons runners “hit the wall” and suddenly feel out of energy and like they can’t lift their pinkie fingers, much less these 150 pound weights that used to be their feet, is that they have run out of glycogen. Your body can be trained to use glycogen more sparingly (during your training runs). You can also delay when you run out of glycogen by replenishing some of it on the run.
The first option is to use real food. A bagel or banana or snickers bar or peanut butter crackers or just a sandwich will all do the trick if you like them and your stomach can handle them and you have somewhere to carry them. I love the idea, but my stomach rebels at the thought of solid food during a run. Not to mention the mess solid food would make in my pockets during the run. But I do know of some runners who carry sandwiches in their pockets!
Next up is the grandaddy of all running fuel. Gels. Now, I need to admit here that I have never even once been able to bring myself to try one of these. It just sounds gross. Now, if they were just little packets of butter cream frosting I could get on board with it, but if I’m going to eat a bunch of concentrated carbs and calories it had better taste great.
The first fuel I tried when my long runs got past six miles (after one terrible training run where I somehow managed to hit the wall at five miles) was Sports Beans. The kind I tried were made by JellyBelly. I do like jelly beans (um, I’m not sure anyone is out there who does not like jelly beans) so I these seemed much more approachable than the strangely textured gels. I bought a couple of flavors (they also come with and without caffeine, so make sure you are aware of which kind you’re getting if you don’t want any surprises) and tucked them in my pocket for my next run. The first time I tried them, I HATED them. I was using the orange flavor, which is my favorite jelly bean flavor. I don’t know if it was a bad pack or if I was having a bad day, but they tasted awful. Way too salty and weird. And I needed a TON of water to wash even two beans down.
Well, since I’d already bought a few more packs, I tried the fruit punch flavor on the next run. Somehow these were much better. I may have just been used to the slightly salty taste or maybe I was just having a better day. I still needed to time my jelly bean fuel intake with water breaks, because I couldn’t get them down without a swig of water but they tasted a lot better than the orange ones. It was kind of a reward to keep me pushing through the miles.
I stuck with the beans for a few months and then I found Honey Stinger. They are organic and all natural, which appealed to me. They are made using tapioca syrup and honey which are easily digestible carbohydrates. They taste great (I love orange blossom the best) and best of all, the chews are so soft and moist that I can take them without water.
These have been my one-and-only for running fuel ever since I found them. On a long run (over six miles for me) I take one chew each mile (unless it’s a race or a hard run for some reason, then I take more). One pack is sufficient for me for up to a 15k and I use about 1 1/2 packs for a half marathon. So far, no upset stomach, even when I take them with Gatorade (which is a no-no for some of the gels).
I got the first couple packs at a running store, but have found the best price on a little box of them at vitacost.com. If you want to check it out, you can use my referral link, which will give both of us a $10 credit towards purchase, or feel free to just go straight there without referral at vitacost.com.
Like most things in life, I’ve found that the perfect running fuel is different for every runner. Some people prefer nothing at all and each brand and type has its own die-hard fans. The best advice I can give is to try out a few things on your training runs LONG before your race to figure out what works for you. It’s much better to have a miserable training run because a new fuel didn’t sit well than to have your hard-earned race day ruined.
What is your go-to running fuel? Have you tried any that you hated? Do you use them for every run or just over a certain distance?