In this episode of the RunBuzz podcast, we discuss the basics of endurance fueling, specifically with gels, wafers, and sports beans. We explore why fueling is necessary for runs over 60-90 minutes, what happens if you don’t, and we share tips on how to pick the right fuel, how to use it, and how to avoid stomach distress. All this and more coming up in this episode.
Fueling for long runs and races is a very individual thing. Proper fueling is more than just opening a GU pack every few miles. For example, your level and quality of training, your metabolism, your genetics, and the intensity at which you run are just some of the things that can impact how much fuel you need on a run. Mess up in any of these areas, and your fueling strategy falls short.
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General Guidelines to Endurance Fueling for Runners
When we run, our body pulls energy from a few sources, the most common being fat stores, and glycogen found in your muscle cells and liver. As we consume food, carbohydrates top off our glycogen stores so we can store it and use it for later. Each day, our body pulls energy from both fat and glycogen. That is an oversimplified view of a very complex biochemical process that is impacted by a lot of factors. For example, the better trained you are, the more glycogen you can store, up to a point.
So during a run, or race longer than 60-90 minutes, it is generally advised to fuel with some form of carbohydrate source. For most distances under the marathon distance of 26.2 miles, these work great. For ultra-runners you will want to add some real food options in to help your stomach feel full, and not consume too much sugar.
Now, there is a thing called, fat adaptation, where almost all your energy comes from fat stores, but that process is beyond the scope of this episode. Generally speaking, that is a long process (several months) and requires a diet with extremely low carbs, and moderate protein to achieve. For the purpose of this podcast, we are going to focus on the most common way of fueling for endurance athletes and that is using gels, wafers, sports beans, and blocks/chews.
How Much of Endurance Fuel do I Need?
In order to keep from bonking, the average runner will want to consume about 100 calories and 25 grams of carbs for every 30 to 45 minutes of activity when runs are 60 minutes or longer. This is generally one gel pack. However, make sure you read the nutrition information because this varies from product to product.
Unfortunately, many people don’t train with a specific fuel type and just grab it if it is being held out at a water stop at a race and therefore some suffer some consequences from it. This is usually a bad idea. The first rule is to use what you train with.
What are the Most Common Types of Fueling Options for Runners?
There will always be natural food sources that work well for many but usually aren’t as easy to carry with you. That is why many runners prefer the following options: sports drinks (like Gatorade, Tailwind, etc) were created and why other engineered foods like gels, wafers, chews, and sports beans were created.
- Sports drinks (like Gatorade, Tailwind, etc)
- Energy gels
- Performance wafers
- Sports chews
- Sports beans
One thing to note is that all fuels are not created equal. Some come with caffeine (which is a stimulant that can help with mental focus and a slight performance boost) and some without caffeine. When using products with caffeine, it is important to not over-consume them, or it can make you jittery, or even cause gastro-intestinal issue which is the last thing you want on a run. You should avoid BCAAs (Branched Chained Amino Acids) as they have minimal effect on endurance fueling)
Others vary in terms of the amount of sodium and potassium that are included. These are two important electrolytes that every runner needs to replace as they run. For more information about these two electrolytes, please check out RunBuzz Episode 85, where I talk about staying hydrated, and I go into a lot of detail on the importance of these electrolytes when it comes to staying hydrated and the performance impact these electrolytes have on you.
The Recommended Energy Gels for Runners
Honey Stingers – This is Stephanie’s first choice as they are organic and are made up of 100% real honey, as well as they contain electrolytes. Note: link is an Amazon affiliate link.
Clif Shot Gels – Clif Shot gels are my go-to gel simply because they are easy to find (and often handed out at races), AND they have a bunch of flavor options, so if you find one you don’t like, there are many more to choose from. Note: link is an Amazon affiliate link.
Last update on 2023-03-21 / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Last update on 2023-02-28 / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Once you narrow down the types of fuel, only do one kind at a time. If you purchased a couple of different brands or consistencies, try them out on different days so you know how each one affects you. Especially caffeine and caffeine-free options. A great place to get samples is race expos and at some running stores.
Help! Gels Upset My Stomach!
Stomach distress after consuming gels, beans, or chews is a common objection I hear on why most people avoid them. But here is the thing. In almost all cases, it is not the gels causing stomach distress.
Stomach distress usually comes from issues such as:
Early sign of heat illness
Running at a higher intensity than you are used to
Too much potassium in the gel itself, or taking them too close together, without an adequate level of water to dilute the gel to the right concentration
When it comes to fueling, there are a lot of factors, so we recommend working with a coach who has experience working with athletes on their fueling needs. A sports dietitian is another great option.
How to Use Gels, Beans, Wafers and Sports Beans
- You do not need fueling or sports drinks for runs under 60-90 minutes. Once you start getting into runs lasting longer than that, without fueling you will probably notice how run down or tired you are getting. This is a good time to start trying them out. For most of us, this is somewhere between 5-10 miles into your run.
- For half marathon distances and below, one trick is to figure out at what mile or time in the run do you tend to feel tired or start to get hungry. Once you start tracking that, you will want to start fueling a mile or two before that point.
- For marathon and ultra distances, I recommend fueling and hydrating right from the start, especially if you will be out there longer than 4 hours, and especially if you did not nail your training. Starting early is necessary because you will reach a point where you can’t absorb fuel as fast as you use it up. So, the idea is to start replacing glycogen immediately from the start.
- Always take fuel with water. Do not mix sports drinks and gels. Ever. Sports gels are concentrated and need water to dilute them. Failure to do this will potentially lead to stomach distress. And make sure when you take on water, that you take on enough to dilute the gel appropriately. You will want to follow the instructions on the gel packet or the manufacturer’s website.
- Another tip is to check your race’s website for water stop locations so you can train to take your fuel of choice just before or at the water stops.
- Finally, pay attention to how you feel after taking it. You should notice a slight boost in energy shortly after taking it. Never take more than what is recommended on the packaging. More fuel won’t make you feel better as you can only absorb so much at a time anyway.
Alternatives to Energy Gels
There are plenty of people who use sugar/carbohydrate-based fuel such as Starburst candy, gummy bears, honey sticks or dried fruit for a quick energy boost. Just be sure to avoid high fiber foods as they can bother your stomach. Fig Newtons would be awesome, but the fiber gets a lot of people. That is also the issue with Bananas, etc.
I like Combos snack pretzels, especially the peanut butter filled ones because they have carbohydrates, salt, and protein. The problem though is that I don’t like to carry them so I usually stash them in my car or at a water stop.
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When you Train with Fuel, Don’t Let Race Day Nerves Throw off Your Plan
Often nerves can get in the way on race day. If you get nervous before a race, it can mess with your appetite and you may not feel like fueling. However not following a fueling plan can lead you to start to crash and then feel too sick to be able to take the gel later. Do everything the same on race day regardless, because you trained that way and your body expects it.
Pre-Race and Post-Run Fueling for Runners
For runs longer than an hour, it is important to eat a light snack of around 400-500 calories 1-2 hours before your race. Having a good mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, will help you top off your glycogen levels that were used up while you were sleeping. Skipping breakfast on an endurance race can be disastrous.
Within 90 minutes of completed activity be sure to eat a light meal, containing carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Get something in you as soon as you can. 30 minutes is better than 90, but no more than 90 as it really slows down reabsorption. It takes 48 hours or more to reabsorb and top off pre-run glycogen levels if you waited more than 90 minutes, but it can be done in 24 hours or less if you eat right away and periodically throughout the day.
Your post-run recovery begins the minute you stop running!