Why consider real food and not gels (or similar)?
Having now run a good number of trail marathons and a few ultras, I’ve become increasingly interested in ‘real food’ alternatives to sports gels for fuelling long runs (typically runs over 4 hours in duration).
Gels are great for a quick boost of energy when you are running a shorter distance at a higher intensity than an ultra.
If you’re generally running marathon distance or shorter, definitely consider energy gels and chews as easy, quick-access nutrition options for running.
>>> Read our Best Energy Gels For Running guide for our recommendations for the best energy gels and chews.
However, after a few hours I found a few problems with relying on just gels or chews:
- You get sick of the sugary sweetness
- The quick boosts are followed by a ‘sugar crash’ that then needs dealing with
- Sometimes what your body needs is not just sugar, but salt
So yes, while you can run an ultra on just gels (I managed more than 8 hours on the c.46k Transgrancanaria Marathon with around 11-12 gels) I wouldn’t recommend it.
Bananas: nature’s perfect running food?
After working that out, I moved on to bananas, or a combination of banana and gels. Bananas are my first choice of real food for trail running.
A banana-gel combo works, as bananas are nature’s best runner-friendly energy food (in my opinion, not a proven fact). However, I don’t really like eating bananas, and eating nothing but bananas and gels for hours on end is not the best way of fuelling a long run.
There must be a better, more diverse real-food alternative?
Asking the experts for suggestions
To gather the top recommendations for the best real food for trail running, I polled my network of trail and ultra-runners on Twitter, and they well and truly delivered… even Dean Karnazes, the Ultramarathon Man, offered some tips.
[Thanks to everyone who responded with such great advice!]
These aren’t all foods I have tried, however, this doesn’t really matter given everyone is different and will have different preferences and things that work for them.
So, I’m sharing what a cross-section of other long-distance trail runners have told me are their favorite foods on-the-go, and hopefully, a selection of some of these will work for you, too.
Real Food for trail running: the list
With that in mind, here is an unbiased summary of the top recommendations from all the responses:
Requiring some advance preparation/cooking
- Wraps, mostly with a form of nut butter (peanut, cashew, and almond were all recommended)
- Wraps with other toppings (such as salty butter, dried fruits, or Nutella)
- Bagels with nut butter
- Croissants with ham or jam
- Sweet potato brownies
- Sushi rice, filled with anything from nut butter and jam to humous and olives
- Nak’d bars (I personally like the peanut and cashew crunch varieties)
- Malt loaf (recommended by many people)
- Fat Coke (ideally flat)
- Baby food pouches (‘Ella’s Kitchen’ fruit varieties are a popular choice)
- Lots of nuts (cashews, almonds, Brazil, walnuts…)
- Jam tarts
- Sugary donuts
- Meaty items: chicken wraps, salami, pepperami
- Chocolate milk
- Coconut water
- and… don’t forget the aforementioned bananas
Other good liquid nutrition alternatives to real food
- Mountain Fuel
Both come in a powder form that mixes with water and are designed to be sipped as an alternative to water during your long run – providing you with energy and an electrolyte source.
Many people run with just Mountain Fuel or Tailwind and don’t necessarily need to eat real food, although in my view, if you can get it down you, it’s good to have that variety.
I’ve had success using Tailwind on a couple of recent 4-hour runs, alternated with the odd piece of banana.
Some other portable suggestions
These specific brands were also recommended by folks in our Twitter poll, so may be worth a try, too:
- 33 Shake
- Tribe bars
- Primal Pantry
- Active Root ginger
I hope this has helped provide a clear summary of real food to try eating to fuel your long runs, and look forward to hear how you get on with trying some/all of them out!
See also our other food-related posts in the Advice section of the blog, such as our ‘Race Day Breakfast‘ post for suggestions on what to eat before a trail race.
Call for comments
Over to you! What real foods do you choose for long runs? Have you tried any of these recommendations?
I’d love to hear your views on what works, how you carry your food (as some are not the most portable!) and also if we’ve missed any great options you swear by!