Goodbye to Gels: Whole-Food Snacks to Get You Through Your Ultra

Photo by  chuttersnap  on  Unsplash

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

When I was training for my first marathon, I jumped on the gel train. I had never been able to eat before exercising, but knew that I wouldn’t be able to get through 10-20 mile training runs, never mind a race, without replenishing my body. Chocolate Gu was my flavor of choice. I can still taste the cloying sweetness and feel my sticky fingers against my water bottle as I tried to rinse the viscosity out of my mouth and steel my mind against the impending gastric discomfort. Gels did not sit well with me.

After a series of stress fractures in my right foot sidelined me from road running, I decided to give trail running a try. I soon found myself a part of an ultra-running community that introduced me to a whole new spectrum of running snacks. A couple of friends favor the Spring Energy Fuel whole food packets.  Another prefers to break for pancakes at the halfway point. There is even one member of our group who infamously munches on sardines and hard boiled eggs on the trail.

These friends got me thinking about my in-race nutrition and, while I knew sardines weren’t for me, I slowly began to introduce whole-food snacks into my nutrition plan. I started off with nuts and bananas, and then began to work in trail mix and energy bites. And you know what? I felt better during and after runs. I stopped experiencing gut bombs. My recovery times became shorter.

It took me a while to figure out what would provide enough calories without weighing me down, but here are some of the things that work well for me:

  1. Almonds: You can buy them in 100 calorie packages or just throw a handful in a ziplock bag. I find they provide great fuel for pretty much any length run. Almonds are high in antioxidants and nutrients, including  vitamin E and magnesium. They are also calorie-dense and therefore can pack a punch even in small, tummy-friendly quantities.

  2. Date energy bites: I find these are ideal for longer runs where you know you’re going to get hungry. The bites contain calorie-dense nuts, and the dates themselves are high in low glycemic index carbohydrates and sugars which offer sustained energy. Dates also contain potassium, an electrolyte necessary to muscle recovery.  I have made all different flavors of date bites, but one of my favorite can be found at Urban Apron (consider making them without the glaze to keep them from getting too messy)

  3. Fun-sized almond snickers: This is definitely not the healthiest item on the list. But they are my favorite. They’re the perfect size when you need a little pick-me-up, are individually packaged, and are delicious.

  4. Potatoes and salt: These are a race-day staple for me. I run ultras and I am not the fastest. So when I do a 50K, I know I’m going to be out on the trail for at least six-and-a-half hours. The potatoes are satisfying, they fulfil the need for carbs, and they’re rich in potassium and other important minerals. The salt has the benefit of both making them taste yummy and helps keep your sodium level up. This is especially important when training or racing in hot weather where you’re sweating a lot as reduced sodium levels can lead to dehydration.

  5. Honey Stinger Gels and Maple Syrup Packs: While I do not use Gu-styled running gels, I do still keep a couple Honey Stinger pouches and Untapped Maple Syrup pouches in my pack. These pouches contain 100% pure honey or maple syrup with no additives. I find that these are perfect for training runs and races where I am working hard enough that my stomach feels a little off.

While this list is not comprehensive, it does include the things that I have found work well for me.  Knowing your body and your tastes is the key! I encourage you to experiment with whole food snacks, especially if you are experiencing gut bombs or energy crashes during training runs and races. Who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself munching on sardines and hard boiled eggs.

Got an awesome trail food idea?  Let me know!

Elissa is wife, mother, and distance runner. A Vermont native, she grew up exploring the dirt roads and trails of her hometown. Friends joke that this small town, which hosts the yearly Vermont 100 and Vermont 50 ultra races, breeds a particular kind of crazy: socializing frequently takes the form of a 10-20 mile group run. Elissa has completed three 50Ks and is enjoying her return to running after the birth of her daughter last spring. Balancing parenting, a full-time career that takes her outside the home, and postpartum fitness is an ongoing adventure. When not working or running, Elissa can be found curled up with tea and a good book in front of the wood stove. She is passionate about NFP, Theology of the Body, and regularly evangelizes on the benefits of eating whole foods while training and racing. You can connect with her on Instagram @elissa_kellner