Fueling Long Runs/Marathons With Whole Foods Instead of Sports Drink and Gels
If you run half-marathons, marathons, or longer, you likely have a favorite sports drink and gel. Personally I found Accelerade drink mix and Gu Roctane gel shots do the job for me (especially the gel with caffeine). But the irony of jamming my body full of factory-packed sugar during an activity I’m doing for my health, meanwhile striving for whole foods in the rest of my life, wasn’t lost on me. Reading about native American ultramarathoners in Born To Run fueling runs at insanely long distances with a blend of maize and chia seed got me thinking — do I need these expensive, scientifically-created concoctions or could I fuel my longer runs with whole foods?
I’ve successfully managed to substitute sweet potato or applesauce for refined sugar in a few recipes, so when I was looking for a whole food substitute for Gu I started there. A 1 oz Gu packet contains about 100 calories and 25 grams of carbohydrate. Half a cup (4oz) of canned sweet potato puree has about 68 calories and 16 grams of carbohydrates, roughly 65% of a Gu gel. So 6oz of sweet potato puree would be roughly equivalent (from a calories and carbs perspective) to 1 Gu packet. But consuming six times the volume of food during the middle of a run can lead to a run ruined by stomach cramps. So, remembering the author of Paleo for Athletes writing that raisins were the fastest way to get carbs into your system, I decided to try a mix of sweet potato and raisins. Personally, I’ve found that about 4oz of sweet potato puree along with a handful of raisins works just as well as Gu on long runs. It’s not so much food that my stomach gets upset but seems to have the calories and carbs I need to keep from bonking. What’s best, it feels good; no sugar rush and crash, a nice even energy level.
Further, I’ve found I don’t need the sugary sports drinks on my long runs. I’ve gone with just water mixed with a tablespoon of chia seeds in all the places I used to go with the sports drink. I take water + chia to the gym in the morning and have water + chia strapped to my waist on long runs. The seeds get soft and gelatinous in the water and while they don’t have much taste it’s nice to get a little something of substance in the water mid-run. There are some bold claims made about chia seeds as the ultimate running food:
Chia seeds are high in protein, fibre, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, calcium, iron, manganese and phosphorous. As well as being exceptionally nutritious, Chia seeds have a special property which makes them the ideal endurance food. When they are soaked in water, the soluble fibre forms a thick, gel like mass. It is believed that when Chia seeds are eaten, the gel-forming reaction occurs in the stomach, forming a barrier between carbohydrates and digestive enzymes, thus slowing the conversion of carbohydrates to sugar. The net result is that Chia seeds are a super slow release energy source, avoiding the usual blood glucose highs and lows. The other important result of this gel-forming reaction is the retention of water. Chia seeds are exceptionally hydrophilic, able to absorb up to 12 times their weight in water. When in the gut, this means that water loss is minimized and electrolyte balance is maintained for longer. – Ultrarunning.co.nz
I can’t tell you if all that is true but I can tell you as a research group of one that getting completely rid of sugary sports drinks from my nutrition plan and substituting with water + chia seeds has worked great. Give it a shot. (Also note the “Chia Energy Gel” recipe from Ultrarunning.co.nz — perhaps that would be better than my sweet potato recipe? Let me know if you try it out.)
But how do you carry 8oz (or more) of sweet potato and 16oz of water on your person over a three hour plus run? And What to eat it with? I’ve heard of people using these reusable sports gel containers to good effect, but I’ve found something very simple that works for me:
- Spoon sweet potato into a plastic baggie
- Throw in a handful of raisins (I like the yellow ones in this)
- Fold and stuff into an iFitness Hydration Belt, along with a plastic spoon. The spoon will stick out of the zipper a bit but it works just fine.
- Fill the water bottles from the Hydration Belt with water, then spoon half a tablespoon of organic chia seeds into each.
- Run, eat, repeat.
Here’s my long-run (10 miles and above — below 10 miles I’m not taking any food or water on the run) fueling plan, which is also my race-day plan:
Whole Foods Long Run/Race/Marathon Plan
- Wake early, eat 2 eggs, 1 banana, 24 ounces of water, preferrably 3-4 hours before the run, no less than 2 hours before the run. Less than 2 hours, just 1 banana.
- Sip water up to 1 hour before the run. No water in the hour before.
- 10 minutes before the run, a few sips of water, a spoonful or two of sweet potato and raisins.
- During run, 4 oz sweet potato plus a few raisins every 50 minutes or so.
- Post-run, smoothie with blueberries, strawberries, dates, kale, hemp powder, water. Dig a few smoothie recipes here, or add your own to the comments.
Your mileage may vary, and if it does, please share!