Fueling Your Run with Whole Foods: Does it Work?

Many plant-based athletes face a rather tough dilemma during endurance efforts:

Do we fuel our runs and races with the clean, whole plant-based foods, which we can rely on to go down easy and sound appealing?

Or should we utilize the processed, artificially flavored, lab crafted goos and gummies engineered specifically for performance?

And more importantly, are we placing ourselves at a disadvantage if we don’t rely on energy products?

As the world of endurance sports has exploded over the past few decades, so too has the market for sports fueling products. But the draw to fuel with natural, simple foods will always remain.

So how you do decide which path to take, and whether or not to treat racing any differently than training?

Why Energy Products Work

You could say that the energy product craze began way back in 1965, when the first sports drink, Gatorade, was created by a group of scientists from the University of Florida for the school’s football team (Go, Gators! Eh, I don’t really care.).

Since then, countless energy drinks, gels, block, beans, bars, pills, crackers, and even gum have been crafted to effectively replenish your empty nutrient stores and power you forward.

And the truth is, they work.

When running an endurance event, like a marathon, your body is mostly fueling itself with carbohydrates. The glucose from the carbohydrates is stored in your muscles as glycogen, which provides near instant energy to your muscles and brain. This energy is fast-burning and super efficient.

The problem? You can only store so much of this fast-acting fuel source, and when you run out…

Well, it’s a one-way ticket to bonk-town, baby.

To avoid the crash, we strive to minimize glucose depletion by fueling with carbohydrates before and during the run. Scott Jurek, along with most everyone else, recommends somewhere between 45 and 60 grams of carbohydrates or about 180 to 240 calories per hour (depending on body weight) while running, to combat depletion.

To get a starting point, multiply your body weight in kilograms (pounds/2.2) x 0.7 to equal the number of grams of carbohydrate you need per hour.

For example, if a runner weighs 165 pounds, that’s 75 (or 165/2.2) x 0.7 = 52.5 grams of carbohydrates per hour.

Quick Note: Needs vary depending on distance and effort.

The calculation above provides a starting point, but every athlete is different, and needs vary depending on distance, effort level, and time.

Research has shown that most runners can sustain marathon pace for up to two hours before running out of glycogen, which means that if you’re running at that pace for less than two hours, there may be no need to fuel during your run.

Increase the intensity of your run and that time drops. Lower the intensity (for an ultramarathon, for example), and you may be able to last longer.

Get to know your body and needs throughout training, and never rely completely on a formula when calculating race nutrition needs.

But no matter how much you consume, you’ll never keep up entirely with the rate at which your body burns through glycogen, due to the time it takes to digest and process food. But energy products are extremely effective at extending the time it would take before hitting empty.

Sports nutrition products are engineered to deliver just the right blend of carbohydrates (glucose and fructose), calories, electrolytes, and vitamins in an easily digestible form. It’s said that a gel, for example, will kick-in in less than 15 minutes.

Each company has their own blend, but they all strive to do the same thing—pump the runner full of things they need (while avoiding protein and fiber—more on that later) to keep the them running longer.

But…

For the most part, energy products are incredibly unnatural and can be difficult to stomach.

Believe me when I say that no one ever forgets their first energy gel experience, and it’s rarely a good one.

Whole Foods That Do the Trick

While they may not be engineered specifically for fueling athletic events, real, whole foods have long been used by athletes around the world. And many of these athletes even use them to compete at high levels.

But, of course, some foods work better than others.

When selecting a whole food as your run companion, you must first make sure it’s a good fit. Does it fulfill your caloric and nutrient needs?

Common, easy-to-carry hiking foods (like trail mix, for example) aren’t ideal for higher intensity endurance sports like running. The nuts and seeds have too much fat and protein, and not enough fast-burning carbohydrates.

So instead, turn to fruits and starches, which will perform better. Let’s take a look at some of the foods I recommend, and how they compare when stacked up to each other:

FoodServing SizeCaloriesCarbohydrates (g)Sugar (g)Protein (g)Fiber (g)
Banana1 banana1052714.41.33.1
Yam, baked1 cup15837.40.725.3
Raisins1 oz8522170.91
Sweet Potato, baked1 cup18041.41346.6
Medjool Date1 date66.518160.41.6

For comparison’s sake, let’s take a look at a few popular energy fuel products:

ProductServing SizeCaloriesCarbohydrates (g)Sugar (g)Protein (g)Fiber (g)
GU Energy1 gel10021700
CLIF Shot1 gel100241200
CLIF Bloks3 pieces90241200

How to Use Whole Foods for Mid-Run Fuel

As you can see from the chart above, it’s absolutely possible to hit your nutrient goals with whole foods, but learning to fuel with whole foods will likely take a bit of time, testing, and preparation. How you carry the food and how much or how often to consume it will depend on your preferences and the needs of that run.

Always test fueling changes throughout your training:

  • Use shorter training runs that don’t require fuel to see how the food sits on your stomach and how well you can eat and digest it while running.
  • Try different foods on different training runs to see how your body responds to the fuel.
  • If you’re used to energy products, bring along an extra gel as backup just in case.
  • As always, avoid trying anything new on race day.

How to Carry the Fuel

Using dates as an example, based on the calculation above, a 165-pound athlete would need to consume three dates per hour. While out on a three-hour training run, you’ll need nine datesrequiring somewhat more space than three to four gels by comparison.

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to make carrying and consuming food easier on yourself, depending on what you’re carrying:

  • Individually wrap portions into small zip-lock baggies to stow in multiple pockets.
  • Mash certain foods and place them in their own baggie. When ready, simply bite off the end of the baggie and squeeze.
  • Use a refillable gel flask. This one is not always an option, but could be good if your fuel is blended or smooth.

This type of preparation will require a bit more work and planning, but it may be worth it.

For carrying enough food for multi-hour runs, Mike Arnstein, the Fruitarian and 12:57:45 100 -miler, shared this piece of advice in an Academy seminar: Instead of using your hydration pack for water, remove the bladder, and store your food in that space.

Our own Matt Frazier put this to the test during a 100-mile ultramarathon with great results by emptying a Nathan Hydration Vest to carry fuel and gear.

The (Sometimes Messy) Problem with Whole Foods on the Run

Everybody poops. The hope is, however, you don’t have to do it mid-race. Nothing can mess up your stride more than having to duck into a porta-potty or wait in line at a public restroom.

So that’s why you’ll find little to no fiber listed in the ingredients for almost any energy gel.

Fiber is prominent in whole foods, which is great for everyday consumptionbut it could become an issue for those eating whole foods during a long run or race. During a two-hour run, that build-up will not amount to much, but during a marathon or ultramarathon, you could find yourself with a digestive issue.

As an alternative, some runners opt for drinking fruit juice instead of eating whole foods. The juice provides many of the carbohydrates and sugar without the fiber. Aside from this, just make sure you bring TP in your hydration pack.

Mike Arnstein on Why It May Not Be Worth It

With all that in mind, is fueling with whole foods a good idea?

On the one hand, we should always strive to eat whole foods as often as possible, and we know it’s possible to get the fuel you need from real food.

On the other hand, it’s much more of a hassle, and carrying the foods, dealing with less-than-ideal packaging, and the need to consume large amounts of food (and, as a result, fiber) to meet caloric needs could impact the end result of your run or race.

We asked Mike Arnstein this very question, and his answer surprised us. Have a listen:

Red treadmill, track running at the stadium

As it turns out, for most of his longest runs, Mike turns to gels instead of whole foods due to convenience and performance. While his clean diet is a major priority throughout the day, long training runs and races are an exception because maximizing performance becomes the number one objective.

Deciding What Works For You

The bottom line is that you must decide what’s best for you.

That could be a 100% whole food approach to fueling your adventures, or it could be a combination of real food and energy products.

You could make your own gels or sports drink. You could also opt for fruit juice or the more natural products available, like Muir Energy and Huma Gel.

Whatever you land on, think outside the box, consider your race and nutritional goals, and test several options.

Because the food that fuels your next big race could be something you already eat every single day.

About the Author: Doug is an ultrarunner, coach, and the co-host of NMA Radio. Pick up his free eBook, Why Every Runner Should Be a Trail Runner (And How to Become One).

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Comments

  1. Great article on best fuel for your long runs. I’ve heard bananas have become quite popular among runners for fuel. Thanks!

  2. I’ve been eating dates during my long runs up to about 2h30min without problems. You can squeeze them enough so they don’t take much room and are easy to carry. For races, I would use gel as it is much more convenient. Save the banana for the post-run snack 🙂

  3. I am training for back to back marathons in just a few weeks. Have been using diluted Montmorency cherry juice conc. and pom juice. A small chunk of Nuun tablet added for some salt. This has been supplemented with medjool dates and Gin Gin candies. I think there is a high fiber issue. Today I tried Tailwind drink diluted. It was unpleasantly salty. Because I eat WFPB diet, the sodium level was very unpleasant. I stopped and dumped half of it and added ice to fill bottle. Thank goodness I had Gin gins to supplement and help me finish my 15 miles strong

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