6 Healthy Alternatives To Running Gels

Written by Sylvie Hall

When I started training for my first marathon, I knew I would need to consider my hydration and nutrition strategies for the race. I’d heard so many horror stories from friends who’d run marathons and cramped up, bombed out and shuffled the remaining miles of the race because of a lack of nutrients or energy toward the end.

Muscle fatigue and cramps can be caused by poor hydration or a lack of potassium. Once it strikes, it can be completely debilitating for runners. If you’re aiming for a personal best, or even just to finish the race as strong as you can, you don’t want to risk it! The key is to fuel up properly before the race and bring the appropriate foods with you during the race.

I have one rule for you: Stay away from energy gels, typically advertised for long-distance runners. They're full of artificial, sugary chemicals and actually almost made me throw up at the slightest taste. I have a very sensitive stomach and knew that using anything like this wouldn’t work for me. I fueled up my own way and completed my first marathon in three hours and 54 minutes — without cramps — and I even managed a sprint finish! Here’s how I fueled up:

1. I drank a lot of water before the race.

Your body needs to be thoroughly hydrated for the race, and the best way to do this is to drink up in the days before. I also had regular sips of water throughout the race to stay hydrated.

2. I opted for tea over coffee.

On the morning of my race I drank matcha green tea with coconut oil to give me an energy boost, without jitters. Matcha contains 70 milligrams of caffeine per cup, but is also packed with amino acids and compounds such as L-theanine which have a calming effect on your mind. Make sure to buy quality matcha rather than cheaper varieties; they taste better and have higher nutritional value.

3. I drank coconut water instead of a sports drink.

Right before my race started, I drank coconut water. It’s full of electrolytes, potassium and magnesium. These are essential nutrients for your overall health and running performance, and coconut water also provides natural energy.

4. I snacked on bananas during the race.

Bananas are arguably the best energy source you can have as a runner. They're a great source of carbohydrates and vitamin B6, which helps in the synthesis of hemoglobin. This helps transport oxygen to the cells, allowing runners to maintain energy during the race. Bananas are also high in potassium, which is necessary to avoid muscle cramps! I ate two bananas during my race and swear by their role in helping me perform so well.

5. I kept dried fruit on me for quick energy bursts.

I ate raisins, tropical trail mix and dates at various points along the race, and during my training. Whenever I anticipated needing a burst of energy, I’d have a handful of them to keep me going. Dried fruit is a much better choice than sports beans or gels because they give you quick energy, are inexpensive and also provide your body with essential nutrients such as beta carotene, iron, magnesium and potassium.

6. I made my own energy bars.

When you consider that you’re burning between 3,000 and 4,000 calories in a marathon, any type of calorie counting needs to be thrown out of the window.

I enjoyed being able to eat lots of nutritious food to keep my energy levels up and found that homemade energy bars were a great way to include some much needed sodium, without the risk of nasty additives or refined sugars. Mix oats, coconut oil, honey, chia seeds, nuts and a pinch of salt with blended dates for a delicious and sweet energy flapjack that you can store in your runner’s pack.

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