Alternatives to Energy Gels: Fueling for Your Long Runs

Homemade energy balls piled on a plate.



There are so many alternatives to energy gels and sport products out there on the market. When you start running higher mileage, you need to fuel properly to avoid “hitting the wall” or “bonking.”

You might be surprised what foods you already have in your kitchen that you can take along on your long runs. Read on for better and real, whole food alternatives.

First, some info on sport products…

There are a lot of products on the market that fit into the category of “sport” or “energy” products. These include, but are not limited to: Gu’s/gels, sport beans, energy blocks, and sport or energy drinks and powders.

However, a lot of products on the market contain artificial sweeteners and unpronounceable ingredients. If you’re running for better health (and seriously, who isn’t?), why ingest an artificial food product that might not be that good for you?

Sport products and digestion

A lot of folks find the above-mentioned sport products to be rather harsh on the digestive system. They’re inherently designed to provide quick, easily digestible energy on the go. But do they stand up to those claims?

I agree they provide quick energy, but I personally find–and many will agree–that they’re not really easily digestible, and yeah, sometimes they have the effect of making you “go,” if you know what I mean. To me, these portable snacks are not worth these negative effects.

Test your chosen fuel source BEFORE your event

No one wants to be doubled over due to a bad stomach ache or stuck in a porta potty on race day. Make sure you test your chosen fuel source on your training runs. This is why they’re called training runs!

Reasons for a fuel trial before your event:

  • To see how you handle the fuel or food item stomach-wise
  • To test how well, or not, your chosen fuel source provides you the energy you need
  • To work out the timing of consumption
  • To figure out what the best method of carrying your fuel is: belt, vest, pack or handheld?
  • To learn how to manage opening packaging, chewing and swallowing while also breathing and running!

Alternatives to energy gels

There are so many options for real, whole food or even homemade snacks that are cheap, healthy, portable and yummy. This list of alternatives is by no means exhaustive, and perhaps it’ll inspire you to find something not on this list that works for you.

Bananas

single banana with brown spots

Super inexpensive, high in carbs, and the riper they are (think: tiny brown spots), the more natural sugar they contain. More sugar = more energy.

Bring a half or whole and carry in a waist pack. You can also freeze ahead of time and it should be defrosted by the time you need it. Freezing it will change the peel color, but not the taste or nutritional value.

Alternatively, you can mash it and put it in a snack sized zip loc baggie. When you’re ready to eat it, tear a hole in the corner and squeeze it out.

Dates

plate of dried dates

Dates, especially medjool, are soft, portable and sweet, which makes them a great alternative to energy gels. At nearly 70 calories each, you may only need one, two, pending your energy output, to meet your fuel needs.

Another great thing you can do is slice the date open on one side and stuff with a few salted peanuts, or other nut of choice. This will increase your calorie intake, provide you some longer lasting energy in the form of fat, and also hit your electrolyte need with the salt.

Pretzels

stack of pretzels as alternative to energy gels

Ok, so pretzels aren’t really a “health” food, but they aren’t terrible for you either. They are super easy to grab and eat on the run and they provide a quick source of carbs. Quick carb source=awesome alternative to an energy gel.

Get salted pretzels if you need to replace your electrolytes. There are also gluten free pretzels available on the market for those who are celiac, gluten intolerant, or who are avoiding gluten for other reasons.

Coconut water

coconut water to take as alternative to energy gels

Thinking about the sport drinks out there–powdered or premade– just turns my stomach. And don’t get me started on gatorade. It has a sugary aftertaste that lingers for miles. Hey, if you can stomach it and it works for you, more power to you. But I find that for a lot of athletes, it falls into the “avoid it if you can” category.

A simple, natural alternative is plain coconut water. I realize sometimes this is an acquired taste and not everyone likes it, but it’s a bit more subtle than other sports drinks. It has a ton of potassium, more than a banana. So it’s fantastic for keeping leg cramps at bay.

Raisins

pile of raisins as alternative to energy gels

Raisins provide a quick source of energy and come in convenient sized packages to take along. Get the mini boxes at 45 calories each or the standard 1oz. box at 90 calories each. Or if you’re looking to be more economical, buy a canister of them and portion into baggie(s).

Boiled Potatoes

whole peeled white potatoes on a plate

The white potato: understated, yet so simple and effective in providing good energy and calories when out on a run. An awesome alternative to sport products, potatoes provide simple carbs that are super easy to digest.

To make: Peel, cube and boil your choice of potato. Toss with a little salt and thow into a baggie for easy transport. Just wait until you try this one. It is so surprisingly satisfying.

You can use sweet potatoes, if you prefer. White and sweet potatoes are relatively comparable calorie-wise, but the white variety is higher in potasium, an electrolyte important in keeping muscles functioning cramp-free.

Squeezable Nut Butters

peanut butter on a spoon

This is one you’re really going to need to test out. Although nut butters are a great calorie source, they’re also high in fat. Most sport products are very low in fat because fat can cause some gastrointestinal upset.

That being said, some runners have no problems. The Justin’s brand of almond butters come in convenient, single serve, squeezeable packets. These are super perfect for an on-the-go snack.

Larabars or Rx Bars

These bars are the closest thing to “not processed” out there. They’re the next best alternatives to energy gels. They’re made with simple, pronounceable ingredients. And, they taste pretty good, too.

Larabars come in many different flavor varieties, so this is nice to mix things up so you don’t become bored with the same thing over and over.

Larabars typically run around 180-190 calories per bar, so you be the judge of how much you need to fuel. Sometimes, too much food at one time can weigh heavy in the stomach as you’re running. If this is the case for you, eat half and save the other half for the next refuel point.

Rx Bars are a bit more calorically dense and also have more protein in them. If you’re putting forth a really long effort, the added protein is probably a good idea for sustainable energy. The date base will provide you with carbs for quick energy, so you get the best of both worlds with this one. Again, consider one bar as two servings.

Homemade Energy Bars, Balls or Bites

homemade energy balls piled on a plate make a great alternative to energy gels

You can certainly skip the store made and make your own. There are endless recipes available online.

What I find challenging with making my own is getting the wrapping or packaging right as well as getting the proper consistency of the bar. Too soft and it can “melt” or turn to goo, and then it’s a mess to try to eat. Conversely, it can freeze, pending the time of year you’re doing your training and where you store your fuel until you’re ready to eat it. If it’s in a pack, it can freeze, whereas closer to your body like a waist belt, it won’t.

On batches where I didn’t quite get the consistency right, I would consume this fuel item first, before anything else that I brought along. Thus avoiding the problems mentioned above.

One of my go-to recipes is from Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports ande Life by Brendan Brazier

1C. fresh or soaked dried dates
1 small apple, cored
1/2C. soaked or cooked quinoa
1/4C. almonds
1/4C. ground flaxseed
1/4C. hemp protein
2tsp. cinnamon
1/2tsp. nutmeg
sea salt to taste

Process all ingredients in a food processor until it reaches desired consistency. Place on a clean surface and either roll into balls or shape into bars. To make bars, place plastic wrap over mixture and roll with a rolling pin to desired thickness and then cut. Or, form mixture into a brick and cut like bread. As bars dry, they become easier to handle.

Makes about (12) 1.75 oz. bars.

Alternatives to energy gels: Fuel for Success

So, there you have it. Nine awesome alternatives to gels, some of which you probably have at home right now. Fueling without artifical sugars and ingredients can be done quite easily.

Give up the fake stuff and fuel your long runs with natural, real food alternatives. Pick one, or pick a few, to test out on your next training run.

Questions? Comments?

I’d love to hear from you. Drop a line below. Feel free to share what alternatives to energy gels have worked for you!

Other Articles of Interest:

Beginner Runner Beware: 6 Mistakes to Avoid

How to determine run frequency and duration

Cross Train to Become a Better, Stronger Runner

4 Tips for Running Fast Downhill

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *