Which is better post-run: real food or energy gels? Find out what sports dietitians recommend to help you recover from a rigorous workout
I’ve always found sports nutrition to be both fascinating and somewhat counterintuitive. As someone who actually enjoys eating things like quinoa and kale and sees packaged foods as in-case-of-emergency options, I had a hard time getting on board with the gels, chews and drinks that are necessary to keep your fueled during marathon training. (Check out 4 Unexpected Ways to Train for a Marathon.)
A lot of racing nutrition seems to contradict what we know is otherwise sound nutritional advice: For example, white rice is generally considered evil, but it's also recommended as excellent pre-long run fuel. In fact, in the days leading up to a marathon, many sports nutritionists actually recommend cutting back on protein and veggies and incorporating in their place simple carbs like white rice and white bread.
Of course there's science behind this "counterintuitive" eating: “Carb loading can help increase muscle glycogen, which helps delay muscle fatigue. It helps your body to maintain exercise longer and boosts endurance performance by about 2 percent,” says sports dietitian Connie Diekman, R.D., director of university nutrition at Washington University in St Louis. And during a long run, ride, or race—any sort of endurance exercise lasting more than 90 minutes—your body needs more easily digestible carbs. Hence the abundance of perfectly packaged beans, gels, chomps, chews and more products that are essentially sugar and caffeine in a solid(ish) form. “Simple carbohydrates are easier to digest and they provide fuel faster than other sources (likes fats, proteins) to keep the muscles going,” says Diekman.
But shouldn’t you be able to get this type of fuel from less processed, more “real” sources? What did athletes do decades ago before we had GU? (Read Should You Ditch Your Sports Drink?)
Real food, like bananas and raisins can be a good substitute for processed fuel, says Diekman. But, they’re often more difficult to carry on your person (especially if you’re running, rather than cycling). And, real food may be tougher to digest. “Bananas and raisins require chewing and take up room in the stomach which can cause indigestion for some people,” says Diekman.
But you may no longer have to choose between good-for-you-grub and the most performance-enhancing eats. Sports nutrition companies are beginning to produce new products that, yes, are processed—but minimally!—and that spotlight healthy foods as the key ingredients. In March, Clif, for example, will debut its new Organic Energy Food—a line of portable, squeezable pouches filled with things like organic banana puree, ginger, quinoa, sunflower butter, and sweet potato.
Other companies currently offer more “real” endurance athlete fuel too, like Chia Warrior. Just be sure to check the ingredients list. “Many of these products have claims that are strictly marketing-related, appealing to what the consumer is searching for, but not necessarily based on science,” says Diekman.
Regardless of whether you choose real food, typical sports nutrition products, or something in between, the most important thing is knowing what your body tolerates, Diekman cautions. “Make sure you know it works by using it while training. Nothing is worse than spending a race searching for a restroom,” she says. And remember: there is no one “perfect” product. The most important things to look for in whatever you choose is that it has a good source of fast-absorbing sugar—sugar, agave, honey, fruit—and one that your GI tract can tolerate, says Diekman. (As for your pre- and post-race meals, check out the Best Foods to Eat Before & After Running a Marathon.)