Long Runs with Natural Running Fuel: Sensitive Stomach Ideas

natural long run fuel

If you ever chat with ultra runners, you’ll rarely hear them talk about downing 100 gel packets over the course of their 24-48 hours of running. Natural running fuel is their standard.

Yet marathoners eat them like candy, thinking it’s required to keep energy high and avoid the bonk.

Instead of the bonk, they usually wind up in the porta potty or with a stomach ache because we simply don’t need that much fuel and certainly not of the kind found in so many packets.

Now, now, calm yourself I’m not saying never to use them or that they’re evil.

Just that a slew of whole food options are also available to mitigate the need for using them quite so much and of course look for the cleaner options if you are using them.

Why is it that we’re so cautious of what we eat the before a run and then listen to any old marketing ploy for our long run nutrition?

The British Medical Journal {BMJ} performed a study in 2012 that showed no true studies exist to support the claims of many sports drink/gels.

How Much Fuel Do You Need on Long Runs?

We  know there’s a clear benefit to taking in calories, specifically carbohydrates, during endurance events to prevent our body from hitting the dreaded wall. However, you may not need quite as much as you think during training runs, which is a great way to reduce stomach issues!

This is due to two things:

Burn More Fat
We need to train our body to utilize more fat than carbohydrates, which is a step in training that most runners skip. You can read all about how this base building part of training should work here. This lowers your calorie and carb need during long runs.

Quick Carbs
On race day, when our heart rate passes the low heart trate max when begin to rely on carbohydrates for fuel. The body can only store so many carbs in the muscles, which means our job is to supply it with quick and easy to use sources of energy.

The second point is what lead to the creation of gels. High sugar packets that dump immediately in to the body…except they have to go through your gut before it gets in to your blood stream and muscles. That’s where many runners have issues with major stomach problems, not to mention the mass amounts of blood sugar spikes.

Let’s look at alternatives to energy gels for running that won’t mess with your stomach or contain additional stimulants. BUT if you do like those quick sources, I created a tested list of the one’s that seem to work for most runners!

Tips for Fueling Long Runs with Whole Foods

A few important notes from athletes who have transitioned to natural running fuel, aka whole foods:

  • Eat more frequently, but less volume {every 30-45 min}
  • Consider a mix of whole foods and processed carbs for endurance events to ensure adequate calories and quick carbs to the muscles
  • Always test on training runs before race day
  • Aim for low fiber whole foods
  • Consider using more homemade gels and drinks during higher intensity
  • Start with carbs before the race {i.e. toast, banana, oatmeal}

Long fuel options that don’t involve gels! #wholefoods #sportsnutrition Click To Tweet

In addition to what you do during the run, most runners focused on a whole food way of fueling will tell you that what you eat before and after the run are equally important. These meals are either going to top off your glycogen stores or help to prevent muscle wasting, all going towards quicker recovery.

Ideas for fueling around your runs:

How many calories do you need during a run?

First question I often get is how many calories do I really need to be consuming? It’s time to stop thinking in calories and focus on the kind of fuel you’re burning and how you handle sustained energy.

  1. Checkout the LHR method for increasing your fat burning. This reduces the total amount of calories needed during the training session and race. (no this doesn’t mean you burn less calories)
  2. Shorter workouts usually will not require any food during the session. Short could mean up to 13 miles depending upon your intensity and again HR. Most runners can do up to 7-9 miles without consuming calories during the run (see the drink section though). Understand the drawbacks to fasted runs though.
  3. Test for yourself: Do you feel grumpy late in your run? Probably out of carbohydrates. Do you get a lot of stomach issues? Probably too many sugars or hard to digest foods.
  4. Which is all to say stop paying attention to the amount you are burning as a guide to what you take in. Most traditional estimates are based on males, so they are way over estimated for female runners!

Long runs don't require tons of gels -find out what to do instead

Quick Whole Food Ideas

There are a lot of options, I’m going to range from the easiest for most people to stomach to those that the ultra athletes found helpful.

Now the major downside to whole foods, which much be addressed is that if you’re trying to replicate the carbohydrates in a gel, you need a greater volume.

For example if a gel is 30g of carbohydrates that would be:

  • 1.2 oz dried pineapple
  • 1 Larabar
  • 2 Medjool dates
  • 2 oranges
  • 2 Tbsp raisins

Additionally, your body is going to need to digest the food as well. So while it can sound wonderful to use nothing but whole foods for fuel, you also need to test it out to see if your body feels ok with extra volume and as I’ve learned if you really need that much.

While much of the original science said take 1 gel packet per 30-45 minutes of running, I’ve never found that my body needed that volume of sugar during a marathon. (see more below on fueling pre and post race).

Natural Gel Options

If you want to try a gel, there are a few options which seem to work better for sensitive stomachs. I have tested out some of these and have gotten great feedback from many of you over the years that these work well (meaning you have more than my word to go on!)

Not in to reading, great, I made a video chatting about this too!

Homemade Gel Options

The truth is that gels aren’t all bad and if you can stomach them, they make you feel energized, then go for it. They are one of the easiest ways to get a good mix of carbs in the body while you’re hustling through the race.

I just don’t love them and like the idea of finding natural alternatives to gels. Hence, the homemade versions where you are using whole foods!

How to carry your homemade gels??
Many folks use little ziploc baggies, others use the bottles from a fuel belt or you can buy a gel flask.

A few ideas to get you started:
Sweet potato casserole energy gel
Chia carob energy gel
Vega Thrive Forward Energy Gel
Homemade energy chews
Fruit Energy Blocks (pictured below and my personal favorite)Homemade Energy Blocks

Hydration Fueling

Along with the food you take in, it’s just as important to keep your hydration on point. This is about more than guzzling water!

I’ve covered in depth how to stay hydrated, along with great homemade sports drinks to keep your electrolytes balanced and muscle cramps at bay. But as noted, hydration can actually be part of your fueling strategy!

Not only are you ensuring that your muscle continue to work well because they’re hydrated, but it works as a little brain trick too!

All it takes it the taste of something sweet in your mouth for your brain to believe it’s getting fuel and give you that energy boost. Thus if you’re carrying an electrolyte drink, just taking consistent sips every mile will help with energy as well.

What’s your go to running fuel?

Have you tried using whole foods?

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