Once you start going beyond the 10k distance, you need to think about nutrition during your run.
Whether you are attempting a half-marathon, the marathon, or an ultra-marathon, you will be better off with some fuel along the way.
And while you certainly can finish a half marathon and a marathon without any additional calories during the race, you better learn how to get some calories in during your run if you are attempting to go ultra.
Like many runners, I tried to tweak my nutrition to support my running body.
I experimented with almost every diet strategy and nutritional approach to fuel my endurance endeavors.
No matter which diet though, I have always been struggling with on-the-run fueling.
I always have been an early morning runner. I would roll out of bed, drink coffee while putting on my running clothes, grab a water bottle and head out the door.
This habit probably derailed my progress big time. I also got injured frequently, which I attribute – at least in part – to my sub-par fueling strategy.
Fast forward to today, and make sure to have at least a light snack before my morning runs and take fuel with me for every session. My go-to-product?
I have tested various products during my runs, and honey has been a winner.
What makes honey the perfect fuel for endurance athletes?
Read on to find out.
How To Fuel For Endurance
Carbs fuel endurance activities. Sports scientists agree on this.
And while people are claiming they improved their performance on a keto diet – I am not convinced.
I have experimented with low-carb and keto diets, including a period where I shunned all plant foods, except coffee, and I could never run fast while on it.
Sure, I could go long without any food and no bonking, but I didn’t feel energized.
Also, when you take a closer look at those “keto” and “low-carb” endurance athletes, you will see that they are using gels in races, eat sweet potatoes and other starches in “periods of high training.”
And while your body can burn fat for energy, it prefers carbohydrate because it is much easier to burn.
But this article wasn’t supposed to be a bashing of keto endurance. So let’s move on, shall we?
If carbs are essential for endurance exercise, how much do you need?
The consensus is that you need to ingest between 30-60 g of carbohydrate per hour during your run to minimize glycogen depletion of your muscles.
The needs vary depending on distance, effort, and your body.
A smaller and lighter runner, like myself, needs less than a taller and heavier runner. The faster you run, the higher the percentage of carbohydrates your body uses for fuel.
What Makes Honey The Perfect Running Fuel?
The type of carbohydrates you consume during a race impacts how fast the sugar reaches your muscle and how much carbohydrates per hour you can absorb.
Simple sugars like sucrose, glucose, and fructose are best for refueling during a run, and the best form of fuel seems to be a mix of fructose and glucose.
If you combine these two sugars, your body can absorb more than if you would rely on either type individually.
Recent research suggests that the body can absorb more than 60g of carbohydrates if glucose and fructose are combined.
And guess which gel has that exact mix?
This natural sugar contains roughly 40% fructose and 30 % glucose. The remainder of honey consists of minerals, amino acids, water, and pollen.
That means you not only get the macronutrients you need to run well, but you also get a plethora of micronutrients that your body can absorb well.
And not only does honey come with naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, but it also has a lower glycemic index than most commercial energy gels.
This means it is absorbed slower, which helps to keep blood glucose levels more stable.
Now you may be saying that this is all well and good in theory. But can honey compete with the myriad of sports products on the market?
The answer is a resounding yes, and in the next section of this article, we will look at some research.
Can Honey Replace Your Gels And Sports Drinks?
Rumor has it that the Olympics of ancient Greece already used honey.
Doesn’t that make honey the original energy gel?
Why use those pricey commercial energy gels filled with artificial ingredients when you could fulfill your carbohydrate needs with a completely natural and healthy alternative?
If you are hesitant because you think energy gels or drinks will give you a competitive advantage, think again.
A review study by Hills et al. (2019) concluded that honey elicits similar performance benefits compared with other carbohydrate sources.
The authors summarized nine articles where scientists described the effects of honey supplementation on exercising human beings.
The main result of their analysis was that honey is just as good, and sometimes a better, form of carbohydrate as other sources. The effects on exercise performance, rate of perceived exertion, and blood glucose concentration were similar.
And not only that, but honey can improve your recovery too.
When cyclists consumed honey post-workout over several weeks, their inflammatory response to repeated exercise stress was dampened.
Be aware that you’d have to eat a decent amount of honey, though. As the authors state: “[…] the primary health benefits of honey consumption have been demonstrated with intakes >50 g.”
Honey is just as good as your go-to-gel or sports drinks when it comes to supporting exercise performance. It sure isn’t worse.
Practical Tips For Consuming Honey During Your Run
If you are now intrigued and want to start experimenting with using honey as a fuel, consider the following: As mentioned above, you’d need between 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour of running.
The exact amounts vary from person to person, pace, and race day conditions. However, it is a reasonable estimate.
One tablespoon of honey contains around 17g of carbs. So if you are shooting for a relatively high carbohydrate intake, you would need to consume 3-4 tablespoons per hour. On the lower end, you might need only 2-3 tablespoons.
These calculations assume you don’t consume any other form of carbohydrate, which is unlikely in a long ultramarathon. Some people also like to have some solid foods during shorter events.
However, I found that I could fuel long-runs of 50 km exclusively on honey. And based on my experiences in training, I used honey exclusively during the 61 km Schwerin Lake Trail Ultra 2021, where I placed 3rd.
As always, experiment and see what works for your body.
The beautiful thing about honey is that you can use it both like a gel and as a sports drink.
I do both.
I dilute about one tablespoon honey in one of my 500 ml water bottles and have gel-like consistency in my re-usable GU flask. For this, I add less water to the honey.
The exact amounts depend on the type of honey and how liquid you’d want it. For a gel-like consistency, I will use only very little water.
To both, I add some salt.
You can also mix your own flavors and add some espresso for an extra caffeine hit. Or cocoa. Or both :).
If you tend to get tired of sweet foods after a while, you can try adding citrus or lime juice.
For very long ultramarathons, multiday hikes, and the like, you can also mix it with nut butter, which will give you some extra fats and protein.
Another option would be to add some of your favorite protein powder to the mix.
The options are endless. Try it out and experiment.
You might save yourself tummy troubles during your next race and save some money in the process by not relying on pricey sports nutrition products.