My 3 Favorite Whole Food Alternative To Gels

When I got interested in ultrarunning, I started to think about how to fuel myself during a run. Before stepping up to ultradistances, I hardly considered eating during my runs a necessity.

I also raced half-marathons and marathons on nothing more than water.

Foolish, I know.

Today, I know better and include a source of calories on most of my training runs. While I don’t demonize sports nutrition products and use them myself, I like the idea of having some “real” food, especially during more prolonged efforts where the intensity is comparably low.

To me, it is important to provide my body not only with the calories needed to go the distance but also with vitamins, minerals, and amino acids to help my muscles perform optimally and reduce the risk of injuries.

However, I don’t necessarily mean whole food options with “real food.”

In fact, due to my overly sensitive gastrointestinal tract with its ever-lurking IBS monster, I consume most of my calories in liquid or pureed form.

So what are my go-to-options? Let’s have a look 😉

1. Honey

Honey is hands-down my all-time favorite alternative to sports nutrition products. It was the first carb-based whole food option I have experimented with, and I liked it from the get-go.

Amazed by the positive effects, I started researching honey as the perfect running fuel and even wrote an article summarizing my findings. It turns out that honey has the perfect blend of glucose and fructose, which results in improved absorption in the gut. Plus, it comes with vitamins, minerals, and even a tiny amount of protein.

Over the last year, I have experimented with different types of honey and different consistencies. I found that I prefer the taste of pine honey and silver fir honey since they are less sweet than most other kinds of honey. Sometimes, I also add maple syrup.

running vest, honey gels and race bib sitting on a table
Honey fueled me to a 3rd place finish in a 61 km trail ultramarathon.

2. Baby Food / Fruit Puree

Baby food is a perfect alternative to fresh fruit. Pre-made fruit puree is portable, requires no chewing, and comes in various flavors.

I have found varieties with coconut that contain a bit more fat and types with rice, oats, and millet.

I especially like that I can reseal the pouches and split the portion. The advantage of baby food over homemade fruit puree is that it has a longer shelf life, and I can easily store any pouches I didn’t finish during my run or race.

Plus, I don’t have any preparation work 😉

3. Dried Fruit / Dried Fruit Bars

Dried fruit is an excellent alternative to fresh fruit during long runs and races for several reasons.

First of all, they are calorie-dense and less bulky than fresh fruit. Secondly, they are shelf-stable, and you can store them for a long time. And finally, they don’t get all mushy or icky from jostling around in your pack.

I particularly like dried dates, as they are not overly sweet like raisins and are packed with potassium. Plus, you can quickly fill the dates with any nut butter of your choice for extra protein and fat, which might come in handy during very long efforts.

Another favorite of mine is a pre-made fruit bar that contains nothing but dried fruit. I get them at our drugstore for 0,99€ each. One bar has 130kcal, 30g of carbohydrate <0,5g of fat, and 0,8g of protein.

dried fruit bars
dried fruit bars from the drugstore

Practical Tips For Fueling With Real Food

As you may have noticed, all of my preferred whole food fueling options are high in carbohydrates and low in protein and fat.

Why? Because during endurance exercise, carbs are the preferred fuel for your body, and you need to replenish them if you want to keep your intensity up and perform to the best of your abilities.

The general recommendation is to consume between 30-90g of carbs/hour, depending on your body type, effort level, and duration of the event.

The table below shows the carbohydrate content of my favorite real food gelt alternatives and how they compare to a standard GU gel.

table with content of carbohydrate content of different foods
whole food running fuel - nutritional overview

If you go the whole-food route, be cautious about eating too much fiber, especially if you have a sensitive digestive system. The sports dietician Kyle van Horn suggests keeping fiber <5g/hour.

What About Protein And Fat?

Many people can stomach more protein and fat when going at lower intensities. That’s when nut butter or protein bars with nuts come into play.

Some members of my running club eat sandwiches and salami for a 100K. Something that I certainly wouldn’t handle well.

However, I add BCAA’s to my drinking water or opt for drink mixes and gels that contain BCAA’s to minimize muscle breakdown and fatigue.

I will try more plant-based protein and fat options over the next few months to prepare for the Big Backyard Ultra races coming up later this year 🤘

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