Every runner needs fuel to conquer long runs. Here’s how to test out your nutrition strategy, so by the time you hit the starting line, you have a solid plan in place.
For those new to distance running, the thought of eating mid-workout may trigger instant queasiness and fears of bathroom emergencies. But any seasoned half, full, or ultramarathoner knows that ingesting fuel during long runs is imperative if you want to feel and perform your best.
That’s because when you tackle long distances, you have to replenish your stores of glycogen—what your body primarily uses for energy—in order to maintain your pace and prevent fatigue, Jordan Hill, RD, CSSD, a Colorado-based registered dietitian and certified specialist in sports dietetics with Top Nutrition Coaching, tells Runner’s World.
As an added benefit, eating kicks off the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, which can provide a psychological boost while running, Hill explains.
The best way to re-up glycogen levels is by consuming carbohydrates. Specifically, reaching for easy-to-digest carbs, like gels and gummies, can provide fuel that is easy to wolf down and that gives you a quick energy jolt, which is why these specific snacks are so popular among long-distance runners. Plus, many gels and gummies also contain electrolytes, which are key for staving off dehydration and may help you avoid muscle cramps while running, Hill adds.
By powering your workouts with the right nutrition, you may notice you have increased energy, are able to maintain a given pace more easily, and that you don’t fatigue as easily or quickly, Kristy Baumann, RD, LD, a Minnesota-based registered dietitian who works with runners, tells Runner’s World.
But fueling right isn’t as simple as downing a pack of chews whenever you feel like it. Nailing midrun eating requires nutritional know-how, plus a willingness toward trial and error.
With that in mind, we tapped Hill and Baumann for expert tips on consuming gels and gummies while running, including when you need them, how to determine the correct amount, a beginner’s plan for introducing them during training, and how to translate it all to race day.
When to Eat Gels or Gummies During a Long Run
First thing’s first: You don’t need to eat during every run. Generally speaking, midrun fueling isn’t needed for training runs or races lasting less than 60 minutes, because your body typically has enough glycogen on hand to get you through that distance without filling up midway through.
But once you pass the 60-minute mark, especially if you’re doing a high-intensity workout—like a tempo run, intervals, or hill repeats—you’d be wise to take in fuel. If you’re doing a low- to moderate-intensity run, like a long run at conversational pace, you may not need fuel unless the run is 90 minutes or more, says Hill, as low- and moderate-intensity runs deplete glycogen stores more slowly than their high-intensity counterparts.
Baumann, for her part, recommends her running clients intake food for any run that’s 60 to 70 minutes or longer—no matter the pace, even if it’s a run/walk—because she finds taking in nutrition during those longer duration runs helps most folks feel better and not fade as quickly.
To find what works for you, try fueling for any run over the 60-minute mark and then pay attention to how you feel. You may find consuming fuel enhances your runs, or conversely, that you don’t really need it unless your workouts extend into the 90 minutes or longer territory.
The takeaway: Start incorporating fuel into runs lasting longer than 60 minutes.
How to Determine the Right Amount of Fuel
Figuring out how many gummies or gels to consume during a run is really a matter of trial and error, as needs can vary athlete to athlete. But generally speaking, for runs lasting between one and two and a half hours, aim for 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour; for runs longer than two and a half hours, strive for 60 to 90 grams of carbs per hour, says Baumann. The faster you run, the more carbs you’ll want to down, since running at a higher intensity will zap more of your energy stores.
For reference, one packet of Skratch Labs Energy Chews, which is marketed as two servings, contains 36 grams of carbs, and one Gu Energy Gel, which is marketed as one serving, contains 20 to 25 grams of carbs. Scan nutrition labels to understand how many carbs your product of choice offers, then take that into consideration when determining how many you’ll need to stash in your shorts or belt on the run.
In terms of frequency, you don’t need to scarf all your carbs at once at the top of every hour. Instead, it’s better to start fueling early, says Baumann, who recommends ingesting smaller doses every 30 minutes, starting at the first half hour mark of your run. “You want to take in the gel or chew before you feel fatigued,” she says.
Keep in mind: You can get carbs from your sports drink too, says Baumann, so make sure to factor that in when planning your total carb intake for a workout if you plan to drink your carbs, too. And note it’s often better to take your gel or gummies with water, instead of a sports drink.
The takeaway: Aim for 30 to 90 grams of carbs per hour, depending on the duration and intensity of your run, and take in smaller amounts throughout the hour.
A Beginner’s Guide to Using Gels in Training
There are tons of different gels and chews on the market, and figuring out which ones jive with your stomach—and which ones you actually enjoy—may take some experimentation. “You’re not necessarily going to love it the first time that you have it, but hopefully, once you find one that you can tolerate, and you notice the benefits on your run, then it’s absolutely well worth it,” says Baumann.
Baumann recommends snagging samples from several different brands at your local running store so that you have various options on hand. “There’s different tastes and flavours and consistencies, and everyone is so different on what they prefer,” she says.
Pick one specific brand of gel or chew and try it on a shorter, easier run to start, like one of your midweek easy run workouts. That way, you can focus on the fueling process without the added stress of nailing a high-intensity run, says Hill. Also, by sticking with one specific fuel source—versus, say, having two different types of gels plus a chew on the same run—you can more easily pinpoint any products that don’t sit well.
From there, decide on the interval at which you want to consume your fuel—every 45 minutes could be a good place to start, says Baumann. Ingest a small amount at first (say, half a gel) to assess how that influences your energy levels and gut comfort, says Hill.
Make sure to drink some fluids as you down your gel or chew to aid digestion (unless, you’re opting for a hydrogel product, such as those offered by Maurten or SIS, as those can be taken without fluids).
You don’t need to imbibe a lot with your gel—two to four sips can do the trick, says Hill. At the beginning, stick with water to reduce the amount of concentrated sugar hitting your gut at the same time. Once you’ve found a chew or gel you tolerate well, feel free to pair it with your sports drink of choice, says Baumann, if that’s what you prefer.
From there, gradually up the quantity and frequency of your chew or gel intake until you meet the recommendations of 30 to 90 grams of carbs per hour. If you’re struggling to choke down fuel at first, remember that “our stomach is a muscle and it can be trained, just like we train our legs to keep running,” says Baumann.
Also important: When browsing different products, pay attention to whether they contain caffeine, says Baumann. If you’re sensitive to the stimulant, then opt for products without it to help avoid GI issues. If you prefer the jolt, try it in training and see how it makes you feel and if that’s the gel or gummy you want to opt to use on race day.
Based on Baumann’s experience, once people run longer than about four hours, they may find it helpful to incorporate more substantial foods—like dates, pop tarts, or carb-heavy energy bars—as a way to combat flavour fatigue. Other whole-food options include pretzels, fig bars, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, says Hill, adding that these picks can be good bets for folks with sensitive stomachs “because they’re usually eating those types of things on an average day anyway,” she explains.
To determine the ideal type of fuel, cadence, and amount that works best for you, keep a log noting the type and the brand of fuel you used on each run, the amount you consumed, at which intervals you had it, and how it made you feel, says Hill. Make adjustments as needed. For example, if you bonked toward the end of your run, then try upping the amount. Conversely, if you felt overly full or nauseous, try eating smaller portions at a time or switch to a different brand.
You can also adjust the timing of when you consume your food, Hill adds. “So if you know it’s going to be a really intense run, and food doesn’t really sit well when that happens, try to consume your fuel earlier when the intensity is lower, or when you’re taking a walk break or a rest break,” she explains.
On that note, it’s smart to also have a pre run meal or snack before your run kicks off, she adds. That way, “you get your gut in the motion of already digesting and absorbing fuel before your run has even started,” which can help your gut better ingest food during exercise, Hill explains.
The takeaway: Test out one brand at a time and make notes on how it makes you feel and perform. When you find one you like, gradually up your intake throughout your training, experimenting with amounts and frequency.
How to Translate Your Fueling to Race Day
The classic adage of “nothing new on race day” applies to your nutrition plan as well, which is why it’s smart to start experimenting with midrun fueling well before you toe the starting line. “It’s so important to practise your fueling strategy during training so that once you get to race day, all you have to think about is racing,” says Hill.
On that note, before race day arrives, look up what will be offered on the race course. Try out that specific product (and sports drink!) during your training runs to determine if it works well for you, and if it doesn’t, haul your own fuel.
Before you get into competition mode, make sure you’ve practised fueling while running at a higher intensity during training, suggests Baumann, as you’ll likely race at a higher intensity than what you held for your easy, long training runs. This doesn’t mean you need to down gels in the midst of all-out track sprints, but it’s probably smart to try fueling during training runs tackled at race pace so that you know how your body responds to eating at that intensity.
On race day, stick to the same amount and timing of fuel intake that you practised during training, and consider toting a few extra gels or chews in case you end up needing more than you think, adds Hills.
Lastly, rest easy knowing your stomach is fully prepped for what’s to come. “Having a solid plan of how you’re fueling is going to give you confidence and support,” says Hill. And you need both to conquer your next race!
The takeaway: You should fine-tune your nutrition strategy during training so you have a plan you’re confident in executing come race day.