What to eat on a long run?
A colleague who is training for her first marathon asked me about what to eat on a long run, how to approach using energy gels and avoid getting that tired feeling after around 2 hours on the go.
It made me realise that for all the information out there on the internet, it is often not clear how to get started using energy gels. I know this because on my first marathon attempt, a hilly trail marathon in Dorset, I did not finish, due to running out of fuel and generally being unable to take another step after completing about two-thirds of the course.
It turned out that bakewell slices were not the most effective means of fueling me around a trail marathon.
As any experienced distance runner will tell you, how, when and what you eat and drink during a long run comes down to personal preference, and you learn along the way what works best for you.
However, that’s not hugely helpful when you are after some initial guidance, so this post shares some simple tips for getting started using gels during runs.
Types of Energy Gel
There are loads of brands out there offering energy gels – and you will need to try a variety out and see which you get on with the best.
Ingredients will vary between brands and types of gels, but essentially what you are getting is a flavoured gel of relatively simple carbohydrates (basically, sugar!) to give you a boost when on the go. [Note – I’m not an expert in nutrition! If you read each product’s description in a shop or on their website, it should explain what is in their products in detail].
Use gels for runs of up to 4 hours.
I find that if I’m running for longer than this, I need some variety and gels start to get too sickly sweet after that long.
It’s probably not that good for you to just eat gels for longer than this period of time, either. You can try for yourself though – I ran my first marathon, a 46k-long (28 mile) mountain trail marathon (Transgrancanaria), fueled virtually solely by gels (I think I consumed 12 over a period of about 8 hours). I had a sore mouth from all the sugar for several days afterwards, but it got me through…
Try starting with one gel every 30 minutes, after 1 hour on the go.
You may find you can stretch this out to every 40-45 minutes, or that choosing to have half a gel every 15-20 minutes works better for you.
Not all gels are created equally.
Some are sweeter than others, and some are thick, almost gooey, whereas others are closer to a liquid texture (and easier to digest).
I find I can handle most textures of gel, from the very liquid (such as High5) to the more gooey (GU) and solid, chewy variety (Clif Shot Blok). I guess I’m lucky! Any of these work well for me on long runs, both on their own, and as part of a race vest smorgasbord incorporating energy bars, bananas, dried apricots and gels for marathon-plus distances and long days out on the trails.
UPDATE: Our new favorite gels are Spring Energy!!
Real food or liquid nutrition…
If you have tried gels and can’t get on with them (and have tried a variety of brands), see if you get on better with real food (bananas are awesome as they come in their own wrapper and are as natural as they come) or liquid nutrition instead. We highly rate Tailwind and Maurten as liquid nutrition options.
Another option to try is also more solid energy food, such as Clif Bars. Personally, I find them a bit dry and hard to swallow when running, but great for after-run snacks and refueling.
This post should hopefully have helped demystify how to get started using energy gels for your long training runs and races.
To learn more about other types of running food and fuel, check out:
- The ‘Fuel’ section of our website, which has loads of great articles about running food for before, during and after a run.
- Our review of Maurten liquid sports nutrition
- The best real food for trail running
- Race Day Breakfast: What to eat before a trail race
- How can I prevent muscle cramps while running?