Walk into any sports store or go to any race, and you’ll see a buffet of energy gels, chews, bars, drinks, and other engineered sports foods that promise to make you run faster and go longer. But are they for you? When and why do you need them?
Any time you’re working out for 75 minutes or longer, you’ll need to refuel while you’re on the road. In general, runners need to add in 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates each hour that they are running beyond 75 minutes. Here’s what you need to know about how to refuel while you’re on the road.
REFUEL EARLY AND OFTEN. Don’t wait until you’re hungry and tired to refuel. By that time, your tank will be empty, and it will be tough to recover. At first, try taking in fuel within 15 to 30 minutes of hitting the pavement. Take another fuel 15 to 30 minutes later—even if you don’t feel hungry or tired. The idea is to keep your energy level steady and stop fatigue and hunger before it stops you. By the time you feel like you need the fuel, it may be too late.
START SMALL. Some runners find that when they add in too much fuel—like an entire gel at one time—their digestive system is upset, and their energy levels shoot up and then plummet. Try half a gel or a few blocks or a few beans every 15 minutes until you determine how much your gut can take.
JUST ADD WATER. Be sure to wash down those carbs with a sip of water. Do not chase an energy gel, chew, or any carb-heavy fuel with sports drinks, which have carbs, too. Doing so dumps too many carbs into your gut at once and is likely to send you dashing for the nearest toilet.
TAKE GOOD NOTES. As you try out fuel during your training runs, keep track of what you took and how you felt afterward. Did you get a burst of energy? Or did you feel sluggish? Were you able to keep your pace constant but then hit the wall toward the end of the workout? Did the fuel tie your stomach in knots? Or did it sit well?
TRY EVERYTHING. There are a variety of sports drinks and energy gels and chews on the market. Figure out what you like and what you can stomach. Energy chews are bite-size products with about five grams of carbs per chew. Energy gels usually have 22 to 30 grams of carbs per packet, while energy bars typically have about 22 to 50 grams of carbs, plus some electrolytes and protein. Some people can’t stomach anything solid and choose to rely on sports drinks, which can have 15 to 30 grams of carbs per 16 ounces. Each product has its own unique blend of sugar and other ingredients, so try as many different flavors and brands as you can to determine which product gives you a boost without upsetting your stomach. If you’re training for a race, try the brand that will be offered at aid stations at the race to determine if that works for you.