title pic energy gel vs real foods

Energy Gels VS Real Foods for Ultramarathon Running

To successfully finish an ultra, you need to learn how to fuel for the event.

Yes, I know that the low-carb runner Michael McKnight has shown that one can run 100 miles without calories.

However, I don’t recommend trying to crush your first ultra on zero calories.

Instead, you should focus on fueling early and often. This ensures good energy levels throughout the race, minimizes your chances of bonking, and maximizes your chances of finishing your race.

But what should you eat? Carbs – this much is clear. What types of carbs, however, is a topic for many debates.

Some people prefer gels and sports drinks, while others gag just thinking about them. Engineered sports nutrition products and whole natural foods each have pros and cons, and choosing one over the other often comes down to personal choice.

Factors such as palatability, costs, ease of use, and availability play a role. They need to be considered when planning your race-day nutrition.

That said, let’s look at the pros and cons of choosing gels, chews, sports drinks, and “real” foods to help you make an informed decision.

Why use energy gels?

I am a fan of energy gels. Unlike most runners, I didn’t move away from energy gels towards more whole food options but went the opposite route.

At the beginning of my running journey, I ran without eating anything and raced on water only.

I experimented with cheese and nuts during my runs when I ate very low-carb. And when I ditched the keto diet for good, I tried energy bars, dates, and honey as my running fuel.

However, it was only when I got used to consuming more gels that my running performance improved. Why? Because gels have some benefits over whole foods.

First of all, they deliver fast energy without any fiber. If you know my story, you know that I have been dealing with Irritable Bowel Syndrome since I was a teen and that my gut doesn’t like too much fiber.

Secondly, energy gels contain a mix of different carbohydrates, enhancing your body’s ability to absorb carbohydrates. And if you can absorb more carbohydrates, you have more fuel available, which positively affects performance.

Another benefit of energy gels is that they come in various flavors. While some people find their taste unbearable, I have found that I can stomach various energy gels better than honey after several hours of running.

There are so many different flavors, and I have yet to experience the famous “flavor fatigue” that seems to haunt many ultrarunners. Using energy gels also makes it easy to keep track of calorie and carbohydrate intake.

Furthermore, almost all energy gels contain added salt, which helps with electrolyte balance.

And let’s not forget the practical benefit of using energy gels. They are easy to carry, shelf-stable, and relatively lightweight compared with whole foods alternatives.

On the flip side, not everyone can stomach the artificial taste of energy gels. More “natural” options are available on the market, such as Spring Energy Gels, 33 Fuels, or Huma Gels. However, they also come with a heftier price tag.

If you want to use energy gels, try different brands and flavors. You might find that you can not stomach one brand but another quite well.

Gels with a more liquid texture don’t require to be washed down with water. There are gels with added BCAA’s, with and without caffeine, and gels with a neutral flavor, such as those from Precision Hydration.

Why use whole foods?

While it’s possible to fuel an ultramarathon entirely on energy gels, most of us don’t want to do that.

Some people, like myself, opt for a mix of energy gels and whole foods, while others choose to fuel exclusively on “real” foods.

The advantages are obvious: Most real food options are cheaper and taste better than energy gels.

If you opt for common ultrarunning foods, like fruit, baby food, and boiled potatoes, you are also providing your body with essential minerals and vitamins.

Some people also find that they can stomach “real” foods better than energy gels.

As already mentioned, I experienced the opposite effect, as most real food options also have plenty of fiber, which is a disaster for my gut. Fiber-free food options I tried on a keto diet, such as cheese or salami, didn’t give me the energy I needed to continue running at sufficiently high speeds. 

I did have success using honey during short ultra races, but for longer races I prefer to include more fueling options. 

The need to chew your food can be seen as an advantage or a liability during ultrarunning. At higher speeds, chewing is clearly a hassle.

However, I sometimes crave something more substantial when running very long. Taking a walking break to munch on a few dried dates or a couple of nuts gives me a psychological boost to continue running.

A huge benefit of whole foods is that you can create your own energy gels or drinks if you feel so inclined. This gives you the advantage of creating a concoction you know you like and can digest well.

For example, I have made low-carb energy gels using nut butter, MCT oil, and salt. Others have pureed dried dates and mixed them with water to reach the desired consistency.

While I like to put honey in my reusable GU-flask, I found it cumbersome to create my own running gels and rely on them. They don’t keep well over a period of days, and I’d be stuck with eating the same gel during several consecutive runs or making tiny portions more often. I found it much more practical to rely on premade gels when time-crunched.

The biggest benefit of using whole foods as your running fuel is their universal availability. You can pop in any small store during your long run and find something suitable.

Plus, you don’t need to test-drive a specific brand of energy gel to make sure you can stomach the one provided at the race.

Almost every ultramarathon provides “real” foods at its aid stations. Common foods include bananas, boiled potatoes, watermelon, pretzels, and chips (crisps). If you are unsure, you can email the race organizers and ask what will be offered.

Find the fuel that works for you

While there are pros and cons to using energy gels and more wholesome food options, there is no right or wrong approach to fueling your ultramarathon adventures.

Ultimately you have to experiment and find what works for your body and goals. The type of event, the health of your gut, and your everyday diet all influence your race day strategy.

Keep an open mind and be aware of dogmatic thinking like “processed food is bad” or “carbs are evil.” Sports nutrition products like gels have their time and place and are often performance enhancers.

There’s a reason why many elite athletes rely on them.

If you prefer to stick to whole foods, eat enough to cover your carbohydrate and energy needs. Also, consider supplementing with electrolytes, as many common whole food alternatives, such as dried dates, baby food, and mashed potatoes, are comparatively low in salt.

Drop me a line if you need advice on general fueling for ultramarathons or specific race-day nutrition. I provide single-session coaching on particular topics of ultramarathon training and racing, as well as a complete coaching package that teaches you the ins and outs of ultramarathon training.

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