Running and nutrition go hand and hand for many people who live healthy lifestyles. But for running long distance, runners actually need nutrition on hand. The longer the run—in terms of time and distance—the more likely a runner needs to be fueling their body with some form of glucose and calories. But the debate among many established runners is which is the best running fuel option, GU vs. “real” food.
When To Eat During A Run
Every runner’s body and their needs differ when it comes to their nutrition. It’s recommended to consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates every 30-45 minutes for runs that are 60 minutes or longer.
This is because around the 60-minute mark of a run, the body starts to run low on its energy stores. Basically, the body needs carbs (it’s preferred energy source) to run and there are only so much that is stored in our muscles before they are used up. By 90-minutes these stores are depleted. The more challenging the course, the quicker the body’s glycogen is used up.
Nutrition is needed to replenish glycogen levels (carbohydrates stored for energy) so that the body doesn’t “hit the wall,” or run out of gas.
How much to eat during the run is based on each runner. Never try anything new on race day and use long training runs to test out how much and what source of fuel works best. Some runners who favor energy gels like GU consume 2-3 packets during a 6 to 13-mile run. Others stick to the every 30-minute rule and might need more. Others find they are fine without anything even up to 8 or 9 miles. There are even runners who consume nothing during long training runs and half marathons.
Others opt for “real” food like potatoes, nuts, almond butter or even candy. Some pick on the food, nibbling here and there, whereas some eat a healthy portion at a time.
It’s important to take a few sips of water when eating during a run to prevent stomach issues. Think of it as washing down the GU or carbs so that the sugar doesn’t overwhelm the GI system.
The Best Running Fuel: The Pros And Cons Of GU vs. “Real” Food
What determines one or the other the best really depends on the runner. What works for one person may or may not work for the other. With that said, there are pros and cons of both GU and regular food.
GUs, the brand name for energy gels, provide an instant way to get glucose (sugar) into the blood and to the brain. A standard packet of GU has 100 calories, with 21 grams of total carbs and 7 grams of sugar—generally in the form of glucose and maltodextrin. GU typically also features sodium which is important to replenish for those who sweat a lot and in the summer heat. Some also contain caffeine for that extra energy buzz.
One study found a link between consuming gels like GU at the right time to an increase in performance. This is probably because it is among the quickest way to get carbs into the body during long, non-stop activity.
There are major pros to taking GU on a run.
- First and foremost, it prevents bonking during the long run, most commonly known as hitting the wall. With glycogen stores replenished, the runner can keep on going.
- These are easy to consume. Thick and gooey, they require very little chewing which is a pro for those who don’t have the stomach for eating during a run. This is because digestion is slowed down during extensive exercise.
- They are small, provide the calories and sugar needed and come in various flavors so there is something for everyone.
- However, there are also cons to GUs. Many find them to be too sweet. Their stomach can’t handle the sweetness and they are left with stomach aches or other digestion issues even when consumed with water–which is a must.
- Some don’t like the taste of many the flavors, finding them hard to get down even if their stomach allow them.
- Then there is the cost associated with these running nutrition items. A 24-count of GU Energy gels can cost about $30 from online retailers like Amazon.
For those who want to save money and eat more nutritious food can try eating during their long runs. What to eat? Many runners opt for peanut or other kinds of nut butter like almond butter. One runner told Rockay that she carries a peanut butter and jelly sandwich after getting “crazy hungry after 8 miles” and eats “bites of it as need and it really helps,” she revealed.
Another runner switched from GU to applesauce and baby food pouches and peanut butter with honey sandwiches after suffering from GI distress.
But it’s boiled potatoes with salt that is a clear favorite.
“Kept bonking on the fake stuff,” runner Sabrina Serna said. “I went low carb and now just use real food. No more bonks. I love everything in the FeedZone Portables book. The baby potatoes and rice cakes are my favorite.”
Other popular food for a run includes M&Ms, raisins, nuts, sweet potatoes, avocado, and Cliff bars. Other opt for Tailwind, a nutrition power for endurance fuel that dissolves into water.
- The pros to “real food” is that runners who faced stomach issues from gels and chews often find these problems subside after switching to this type of running fuel. It is more natural than the gooey stuff, and chances are it tastes better depending on what the runner is munching on.
- It also saves the runner money because it doesn’t cost much for raisins or peanut butter.
- The runner needs to consume around 200 calories per hour of running. While GU gives the exact calorie counts runners are left guessing how many calories, carbs, and sugar is in their boiled potatoes. However, look up the nutritional facts and do the math.
- It can take time to master eating and running. It is also trial and error since some foods might work better and some might not prevent the bonk at all.
- It can be hard to carry certain foods like boiled potatoes. It might require running with a hydration pack or belt.
How To Carry
This brings us to the next major point about running fuel. Many wonder how they can carry their nutrition for the duration of the run. GU is small enough to hold in the runner’s hand if they only need on and don’t mind things in their hand But many fit their GU into their phone armband or pockets—either running jacket, pants or shorts.
Others use a running belt to fit GU, car keys and more. Others use hydration backpacks in order to hold water and all their running goodies for those longer mileage runs.
Carrying food can be a bit more messy in terms of holding it. Nuts, candies, and raisins are easy to munch on when placed in the ziplock bag or small container. This may fit into a pocket or might require a pack, vest or belt for carrying. Runners put their potatoes in a small bag or in tin foil wrapped up and placed in their running belts.
For the most part, real food options require a vest or belt in order to carry it worry-free. Some nut kinds of nut butter are available in the portable size that is comparable to a GU and can fit into a pocket.
- Why Is On-theRun Fuel So Important?, Susan Paul, July 12, 2012, Runner’s World
- Everything You Need To Know About Energy Gels, Jeff Gaudette, July 10, 2014, Competitor Running
- Performance Nutrition: Should You Use An Energy Gel? The Good, Bad, Ugly Of Gels And A Better Option, Andrew Dole, RDN, Fruits And Veggies More Matters
- Sports Gels Can Improve Marathon Times but Pace Them Right, Gretchen Reynolds, October 29, 2014, NY Times
- What to Eat to Fuel Your (Long) Run, Sitka Winn, Rei Blog