While training and tackling your road races, you’ll no doubt see athletes guzzling sports drinks and stocking fuel belts with sports nutrition products. But you may be surprised to learn that fueling is not necessary in every run or race (it depends on how long you’ll be on the course) – and that you can often meet your fueling needs with real foods (if you’re stomach tolerates them well).
How Much to Eat on Runs
Let’s start with the basics – how much fuel to take in during training and racing. Your fuel should contain easily digestible carbohydrates, in the following amounts based on the length of time you are training or racing:
- Less than 1:15 – No fuel needed
- 1:15 to 3 hours – 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour
- 3+ hours – 30 to 90 grams of carbohydrate per hour (highly individualized – prolonged activity may require more fuel to maximize performance)
What to Eat While Running – Is Real Food an Option?
Gels, shot blocks, sports drinks – all of these can meet the guidelines above when exercising longer that an hour and fifteen minutes. But what about real foods? In other words, can regular food you can get at the grocery store be used during running?
Yes! You can definitely use real food options on your runs – if your gastrointestinal system tolerates them well. Look for foods that are rich in easily digestible carbohydrates, and that contain little fat or fiber, since these digestion and can cause stomach upset.
So what can you use? Bananas and raisins are two options that tend to work well for many endurance athletes, and have been proven as effective as sports nutrition products in research. One large banana or ¼ cup raisins both provide about 30 grams of carbohydrate – falling in the lower end of our 30-60 grams/hour range.
Other options include (listed from “clean eating” to “not-so-clean-eating”):
- Dates (2 medjool dates = 35 grams carbohydrate)
- Salted boiled potatoes (1 small potato or ½ large potato = 30 grams carbohydrate)
- Low-fiber dry cereal (nutrition varies based on type)
- White bread with honey or jam (1 slice + 2 tbsp = approximately 45 grams carbohydrate)
- Plain bagel (½ large bagel = 30 grams carbohydrate)
- Pretzels (25 mini pretzels = approximately 30 grams carbohydrate)
- Candy: sweedish fish, gummy worms, or jelly beans (check labels for nutrition facts)
To build your real food plan, simply choose an option or two that you enjoy and figure out the portion size that would equal 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Then plan to eat about that much every hour of training/racing, starting around the 30-45 minute mark. Keep a log so you can track the fueling plans that were successful for you during training – this will help you figure out your optimal race-day strategy.
But keep in mind that everyone’s body is different. Real food may help some excel, while others may prefer engineered sports nutrition products. Engineered products are generally customized to provide the right types and amounts of different types of sugars, so they may be more easily tolerated and absorbed compared to regular foods. There is no “right” answer. Find what works best for you!