Eating during a workout always seemed counterintuitive to me -- until I started marathon training. At the start of the season, I could easily get through an hour-long workout before breakfast, but mileage nearing the double digits calls for nutritional reinforcement.
Over the years, I’ve tried a wide variety of the products on the market for endurance athletes: gels, blocks, and sports drinks. I’ve also created my own endurance fuel from scratch to save time and money. Sorting through what worked performance-wise and what I could swallow without gagging took some time, but I’ve found options that help me fuel through 10 or even 26 miles.
Here’s a look at what’s on the market and easy homemade versions to try for yourself:
Powerbar Gels, Gu Energy and Clif Shots Energy Gels
All of these products come in a little pouch that you squeeze into your mouth and chase with water. The range of flavors is impressive, from banana to chocolate mint to double mocha enhanced with caffeine.
I like to think of these as running medicine -- they can be an unpleasant experience to swallow, and there aren’t many flavors I can honestly say I enjoy, but once it’s down my throat, I start to feel better. They have sodium to help the body retain fluid and electrolytes to replace the ones you lose during your workouts. Of all the products out there, I find these provide the fastest and most noticeable burst of energy -- at roughly 100 calories per pouch, take one an hour into your run and they’ll keep you going for at least another 45 minutes.
- DIY: Honey packets (like the ones you get with tea at Starbucks) are the closest thing to homemade energy gels I have found. For the all-natural runners, honey has fewer additives than most products and is fairly mild flavor-wise, so it’s a good healthy substitution at around 40 calories each. While honey packets don’t contain added sodium, you could also bring a little salt packet along if you are really ambitious.
Clif Shot Blocks and Sport Beans by Jelly Belly
These products win the taste test by a mile in my opinion. I actually enjoy the yummy raspberry flavored blocks and fruit punch-flavored Sports Beans that are like giant Jelly Bellys! However, they are not my favorite to carry around -- the Shot Blocks come in a long package that can’t really be pinned to your outfit or carried in a pocket, so it requires repackaging. The Sport Beans have sodium and potassium to help maintain fluid balance, but the number of beans requires some time for eating, so it takes a little longer for your body to access to the energy they provide. Nevertheless, I found that these products were a good place to start — they are tasty and easy on the stomach.
- DIY: Pretty much any candy tossed in a plastic baggy will work—Gummy Bears, Sour Patch Kids, Twizzlers Nibs are personal favorites. However, I have also gone the less processed route and cut up dates for a sticky, but all natural energy boost.
The classic athlete’s beverage. Gatorade is a good choice for those who just can’t get used to eating on the run. I generally save this for very long runs or races when I need extra help replacing electrolytes. Like many of the other products, there isn’t fiber in Gatorade, so you can break it down for use by the body more quickly than solid food—this is the only time I actually avoid fiber! Gatorade is a little lower in calories than some of the other products, so make sure to factor in the length of your run and how many calories you need to replace.
- DIY: Water. It may seem boring, but I find water the most thirst-quenching option when I am running. You could add a splash of juice, but I think plain water is enough for most runs. Plus, plain water makes cleaning out water bottles a much easier task. Since it’s calorie-free, you will have to rely on other options to refuel.
Finding the best option tends to take some experimenting and trial and error. The fancy bright packets can be enticing, but I find that almost anything you can carry and get while moving can work in a pinch. When making my own versions, I try to find options high in carbohydrates and low in fiber that contain least a tiny amount of sodium. While I’ll never choose a packet of GU over a nice brunch, I’ve come to realize that these little energy packets do enhance performance and make long runs easier and more enjoyable -- and fueled muscles are more willing to pound out those last few miles.
Melissa is a NYC resident and workout junkie. She keeps motivated to stay fit and active by trying out new workout classes, signing up for races, and keeping an eye out for a fun fitness challenge. She hopes to complete the New York City Marathon for the second time in 2011. Read more about her healthy adventures in New York City at her blog fitnessnyc.wordpress.com.