Runner’s Race Day Nutrition: Sports Gel Alternatives

Have you ever wondered what’s in those Gu sports gels, Jelly Belly sports beans, and other mid-race sports products? I have. I’ve also been thinking, are there any healthier alternatives? I’ve done some thinking and research, and I think there is with proper planning and food/drink combinations.

This week, more than ever, I’ve been thinking a lot about nutrition for runner’s. Last weekend was filled with running inspiration as I was at the Boston Marathon expo on Saturday and the race itself on Monday. My brother-in-law, Tim, ran the marathon with the Multiple Sclerosis team, so my family and I went to support him and celebrate the Easter holiday.

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looking great at mile 10

On Saturday, we spent the afternoon at the marathon expo which was filled with everything you could possibly think of that is running related and then some. It was great to be surrounded by so many runners, supporters and vendors supporting the runners, the marathon, the city and the sport itself. That night, we attended the MS team dinner which ended with inspirational speeches from runners and coaches. It was an amazing experience and truly inspirational, but I couldn’t help but think of the nutritional side of everything. Seeing as I spend so much time thinking about and preparing food, it wasn’t that surprising. But Saturday got me thinking and Monday got me really thinking.

What first got me tossing ideas around were the free samples at the expo. There were protein drinks, protein bars, recovery drinks, electrolyte drinks, yogurt, pork, cereal, GU energy gels and much more. As expected, I passed on a lot of these samples. What I did have was Mama Chia (chia squeeze and beverage), Stonyfield Organic yogurt, a few pieces of a gluten-free protein bar (the one thing I normally wouldn’t have eaten), a delicious piece of pork, a sample of Vega Sport recovery accelerator and a sample of Nuun electrolyte enhancement. I made wise decisions with the exception of the protein bits — I’m human, it happens. Moving on. I kept thinking there has got to be a better way to prepare yourself for a race such as a marathon and keep you going during the marathon without subjecting yourself to chemically laden protein drinks and bars, GU gels, Jelly Belly Sports Beans and Gatorade.

The thing is, these companies want you to think that you NEED their product. And the truth is, you don’t. Whatever it is that’s supposed to make their product worth consuming, I guarantee you can find it in a more natural source. Some may say, “It’s one race on one day, it won’t kill you.” But that doesn’t matter to me. What about the runner that really cares about what he or she puts into his/her body each and every day? Or the runner that runs multiple marathons — are these chemically laden sports drinks and food-like products supposed to be a part of their training and racing each time? I don’t think it’s fair to declare that every runner needs these things. Because like I said, they don’t.

The next thing that got me thinking was how many bodies reacted to the weather on race day. Tim had said that he started cramping up around mile 17. One of his coaches, Karen Smyers (Worldclass triathlete, coach and speaker) also cramped up during the race (by the way, you should read Karen’s story; she is an unbelievable athlete and human being). We kept hearing how people cramped up and didn’t run the race they had hoped to run — or the run their training led them to believe they could run. It’s okay, it happens. There will be more races. But aside from the unusual heat, which certainly had something to do with it, I couldn’t help but wonder if the same thing would have happened if a different nutritional approach had been taken. Weather wise, there was nothing anyone could do–the runners trained in markedly cold temperatures and ran the real deal on an almost 70 degree sunny day. That heat and sweating is going to take its toll, especially when you haven’t been training and preparing in those conditions. Regardless, this all got me thinking. A lot. Even more so because I plan on running the New York City marathon in 2015 with Tim and two of my siblings. When my training time comes, I want to be prepared. So I did some thinking and then I did some research.

Low and behold, I was right! Others have been thinking exactly what I was thinking — there’s got to be a more natural way. Not only are these alternatives organic and natural, they actually benefit your body by nourishing it with real vitamins and minerals in addition to giving you that boost of energy you need. And the sugar? All natural.

Here’s the thing: First off, the goo. Some people have stomach issues with the gels–from an upset stomach to being constipated after the run. Others find them simply gross and are extremely thirsty after consuming the goo. All can be big problems. But let’s take a look at the facts.

One Gu Gel pack provides: 100 cals, 50 mg sodium, 35 mg potassium, and 25 g carbs. A very balanced dose of energy for runners, which is much needed during a marathon. But there are a few problems — none of it is real food and while it may “energize” you, that glycogen isn’t going to your muscles. When racing, your body mainly runs on carbs. The carbs provide your body with glucose to give it energy. Extra glucose gets stored as glycogen. When your body runs out of glucose, as it does in a long race, your body goes to its glycogen stores in your muscles and liver. During a race or other strenuous exercise over a long period of time, your body will turn to the glycogen in your muscles for energy. So, to prevent cramping and dying out, you want to feed your muscles glucose before they use up all their stored glycogen. BUT, all that simple sugar and fake stuff in the goo packet isn’t the best form of glucose for your body. Therefore, you won’t be absorbing, storing or using it efficiently. Instead of going to your muscles, it’s mainly going into your bloodstream — and the brain is what uses the glucose in your bloodstream. So while racing, you’ll get the sugar rush because that goo glucose is being used up by your brain, not your muscles, and you risk cramping. Your muscles can only store glycogen after the glucose has gone through the digestive system and your bloodstream, so you need to prepare and start fairly early in the game. Otherwise, the glucose doesn’t have time to make it’s way through the body and get to your muscles. When there isn’t enough for both your brain and your muscles, you start feeling hazy or dizzy (brain) or start cramping (muscles). Both are big problems. The best thing to do is have a healthy diet throughout your training, stick to real sources of food and energy, and fuel up sooner rather than later in your race.

If that doesn’t convince you, the goo is loaded with maltodextrin, fructose and preservatives. Also, has anyone noticed that the company name is Gu Energy Labs? It tells you right there. That’s enough of a problem for me. Your body needs to utilize what you give it and store properly. Do you really think maltodextrin, fructose from a lab and preservatives are going to enable your body to do that? No. You need real whole sources of energy — that only come from living food — and vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins to absorb everything properly. So let’s see how the natural alternatives stack up.

Here are my 7 alternatives to sports gels, goos, drinks and whatever else they’re concocting the in the lab these days:

  1. Mamma Chia Squeeze (gel/GU alternative): 70-80 cals, 8 mg sodium, 70 mg potassium, 10 g carbs; bonuses: 1200 mg omega-3 thanks to the chia seeds (read more about chia seeds and how they have been used to energize runners for years), organic, non-GMO, vegan, gluten-free, bpa free, ingredients: chia seeds, fruit + vegetable puree (depends on flavor) and citric acid
  2. Gerber Organic 2nd Foods Pouches Banana Squash (gel/GU alternative): 80 cals, 5 mg sodium, 310 mg potassium, 20 g carbs; bonuses: organic, lots of different flavors, ingredients: banana puree, squash puree, water, citric acid, vitamin C
  3. Made in Nature Raisins 1/4 c (bean/chew alternative): 130 cals, 10 mg sodium, 310 mg potassium, 31 g carbs; bonuses: organic, a whole food = 1 ingredient (raisins)
  4. Made in Nature Dried Apricots 1/4 c (bean/chew alternative): 110 cals, 0 mg sodium, 520 mg potassium, 25 g carbs; bonuses: organic, a whole food = 1 ingredient (apricots)
  5. Annie’s Organic Pretzels 32 pieces (pre-race fuel): 110 cals, 360 mg sodium, 39 mg potassium, 22 g carbs; bonuses: organic, minimal ingredients
  6. Justin’s Honey Almond Butter Squeeze Pack (gel/GU alternative): 190 cals, 65 mg sodium, 200 mg potassium, 9 g carbs; bonuses: all-natural, minimal ingredients, gluten-free, 6 g protein, ingredients: dry roasted almonds, honey powder (sugar, honey), sustainably sourced palm fruit oil, sea salt
  7. Nuun Active Hydration 16 oz (Gatorade alternative): < 8 cals, 360 mg sodium, 100 mg potassium, 25 mg magnesium, 13 mg calcium, < 1 g carb; bonuses: no sugar, no high fructose corn syrup, no artificial flavors or colors

To get all the benefits you get from a gel, without all the stuff you don’t want from the gel, it seems to me that you would have to wisely combine your alternatives. Having not tested the theory out yet, something I do plan on doing, here is what I suggest runner’s do — try this theory out on a long run during training so you know whether or not it is a suitable approach for you on race day. Practice this routine on your long run days, 13+ miles, having exactly this and tweak it if a few things don’t work for you. That way, come race day, your body will be accustomed to this pre-race plan — a very smart move.

  • 3-4 hours pre-race, eat an energizing breakfast: oatmeal (1/2 c – 1 c, depending on how much your stomach can take) cooked in water with 2 egg whites added (or you can soak your oats overnight in milk & greek yogurt for a delicious chilled bowl of overnight oats) + 1 tbs raw honey stirred in + a banana (diced and mixed in) or raisins/another dried fruit + 20 ounces of water. Take it up a notch: keep everything, including the honey, but substitute the fruit for a green juice. Try greens (spinach/kale), cucumber, sweet potato, apple and orange. 
  • 90-70 minutes pre-race, have a snack: Annie’s Organic Pretzels (or another organic brand) + Justin’s Honey Almond Butter/Peanut Butter squeeze pack or a Mamma Chia squeeze pack or banana/dried fruit if you had a juice with breakfast + 1 Nuun tab in 16 ounces of water
  • During the race, fuel up every 45-60 minutes to prevent you from cramping and running out of energy stores. As discussed above, you need to prepare. Depending on the race (1/2 or full marathon) and your pace, your muscles can only store about 90 mins-2 hours worth of glycogen in your muscles. You also need to give your body time to digest your fuel and get that glucose to your muscles: fuel up with the Gerber pouches, Mamma Chia squeezes, dried fruit + a few ounces of Nuun. I suggest apricots for the dried fruit because they are larger and easier to eat than raisins — you could put a handful in a small ziplock bag and pop in 3 or 4 as needed. If you are fueling up 3 or more times in your race, I suggest getting a mix of the Gerber packs, Mamma Chia and apricots. When you re-fuel, take a few sips of your Nuun water — only a few ounces at a time.
  • After the race, be smart. You need to re-fuel your body but do not want to send it into shock with loads of sugar. Try chocolate milk or a green juice at first. Drinking will probably be easier than eating. When you can eat, go for a balanced meal with protein + carbs + natural sugar. A well packed smoothie would be a great option. Make it as big as you want — load that baby up with greens, chocolate milk, coconut water, hemp seeds or hemp protein/a good whey protein, fruit, and maybe some peanut/almond/sunflower/pumpkin butter (those with nut allergies, go for seed butter). Enjoy it slowly. Bonus: liquid/blended nutrition is more easily absorbed and you need to absorb those nutrients after a big race.

As with anything, it is smart to test this theory out before race day. Like I said, test it out on your long run days and see how you feel. Avoid processed foods while training and keep your body well fed. With the right foods, your body will know what to do. Incorporating green juices and recovery green smoothies into your training will nourish your body so incredibly well, I highly suggest giving it a try. Now get out there. Nourish, fuel up and run!

Good food. Good tips. Good moves. Good for you.

Running on Good, xo

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy the following posts regarding natural living and avoiding chemicals by my blogging friends from around the web:

  1. Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging by Lindsay Dahl
  2. Natural Flu and Cold Remedy & Prevention by Overthrow Martha
  3. How to Make Almond Milk by Ribas with Love
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