Do you find that energy gels leave you feeling nauseous or, worse, make you rush for the nearest loo mid-race? Or do you just hate that sickly sweet taste? You’re not alone.
Many runners can happily suck down those convenient concoctions of glucose and fructose to keep their carbohydrate stores topped up during longer races such as marathons or half marathons. But there are plenty for whom taking a gel is not an option.
We only have a limited capacity to store carbohydrate as glycogen in our muscles. During the course of a race, that glycogen is converted into glucose, which powers your muscles. You will need to consume some extra carbohydrate during a race that lasts more than 90 minutes or so, unless you want to hit the wall. The
rate at which you use up your glycogen stores is very individual, and depends partly on how fast you can run before your body switches from predominantly burning body fat to burning just carbohydrate, known as metabolic efficiency, and also on how well you stocked up your glycogen stores in the 24 hours or so before the race.
WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?
Sports nutrition research suggests that you need to consume around 60g of carbohydrate per hour to optimise your race performance. So, what are the alternatives to energy gels? Here are some suggestions:
Branded sports drinks
If you can’t tolerate the one provided on the course, you’ll need to carry your own. Look for one which has maltodextrin (a form of glucose) or isomaltulose as its main ingredient and doesn’t contain any fructose, as these are likely to be easier on the stomach and less sweet than other energy drinks. Try Elivar Endure (£19.99 for 12 sachets [32g of carbs per sachet], www.elivar.com).
Homemade sports drink
A 500ml bottle of fluid needs to deliver 30g of carbs for optimal results. Try adding 37ml cherry juice concentrate (such as Cherry Active, £15.99 for 473ml, www.cherryactive.co.uk) to 500ml coconut water.
Jellies and chews
These can be eaten in small quantities, which is easier on the stomach than gulping down a gel. Try Clif Shot Bloks (£2.49, www.clifbar.co.uk)). Each piece delivers 8g of carbohydrate. Or carry a packet of traditional jelly babies.
Chia seed gels
A good alternative to traditional gels for those looking for a more natural and less sickly product. You fill them with water and the chia seeds form a gel in about ten minutes. Try the 33 Shake brand, which also contains coconut palm sugar and Himalayan salt, but nothing else (£9.95 for five, www.33shake.com).
You may prefer to choose natural wholefoods to help fuel your long runs and races. These are perhaps best suited to running at a slower pace, as solid foods are harder to digest at high intensities. They make a particularly good choice for ultras – any race over marathon distance – when you are likely to want some ‘real food’, and may be carrying a backpack with you to store your supplies.
Bananas A medium banana gives you 27g of carbohydrates. A 2012 study on trained cyclists published in the journal PLoS One found that eating bananas during a 75K time trial had the same effect on performance as consuming a sports drink.
These are easy to carry in a bag or small box, and a 30g handful gives you 24g of carbs. A 2013 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that 5K time trial performance in a group of runners was the same whether they consumed raisins or energy chews beforehand.
Almonds and goji berries
A tasty combination that provides 14g of carbs per 60g (a large handful). Soak the almonds in water overnight to make them easier to digest. Good to use alongside some higher-carbohydrate options.
Whatever option you go for, the most important thing is to try it on a long training run, preferably while running at close to race-day pace, to see how well it works for you. Never try anything new on race day!
WHEN LESS IS MORE – DON’T OVERDO IT DURING SHORTER RACES!
Do you need extra glycogen stores for less than a half marathon? If you’re racing a 5K or 10K, there’s no need to consume anything except water. But do have some carbs as part of your meal the night before, such as pasta, rice, potato or bread, and top up your glycogen stores in the hour or two before the race, depending on when it starts, for example with porridge, banana, fruit juice, or toast and honey. For a ten-mile race, you might benefit from 30g of carbs at the halfway mark. But otherwise, a half marathon is the first distance where you need to plan how you will top up your fuel stores during the race itself.