It is no secret, energy gels like Gu or ClifShots can give runners a much needed boost at any distance from the half marathon to a 100 mile ultra. On longer trail runs over 20 miles, I’ve been known to suck one down every 45 minutes. Tons of money and many hours of research have gone into perfecting the concoction of ingredients, both natural and unnatural, to create the best energy gels.
But many people have issues with energy gels. After having a few, the thought of slurping down the sticky goo can be nauseating. For many people, the upset stomach feeling can last for hours after the workout. And (for a reason) they are known to plug you up, making post workout relaxation a bit difficult at times.
So when thinking of a way to fix the problem, I asked myself, what if there are natural, clean ingredients out there that can provide the same benefits for a healthier, cheaper, and better product? Well, I set out on a journey to find those products, testing three alternatives to the energy gel.
Before deciding what to try, I first figured out what exactly it is about energy gels that make you feel so good. The important things inside that pack of flavored goo are carbohydrates (for energy), sodium (to replace the salt you are sweating out), potassium (to replenish what is lost from the muscles, to prevent cramping), vitamins (to make you feel good), and a lack of fiber (which is part of what makes most people feel, well, sick for the hours following a run).
The Base Product – Gu Energy Gel (1 pack, 32g):
Here are the starting stats, as found on the back of a Gu Energy Gel, my gel of choice.
- Calories – 100
- Sodium – 50mg
- Potassium – 35mg
- Carbohydrates – 25g
- Fiber – 0
- Vitamin A – 0
- Vitamin C – 100%
Sweet Potatoes (1 cup, baked, with skin):
This is probably the cheapest of the three options, and one that I’ll continue to use on any endurance runs, rides, hikes, or backpacking trips that require extra fuel. I simply sliced one large sweat potato, skin still on, into small disks, lightly salted them on a baking sheet, and slow baked them for about 35 minutes at 250 degrees. Now the baking time is no science, but the goal is to dry them out with a very slow bake. Once they were ready and cooled, I threw them into a small ziplock and munched on one about every 30 minutes during the run. They kept in the fridge for about 2 days.
Pros: The sweet potatoes were actually pretty tasty! These little potato disks couldn’t have been easier to eat, with little mess and no packaging waste other than the single ziplock which held the 10-15 slices I brought with me. They were easy on the stomach, gave me a much needed feeling of actually eating something of substance, and went down nicely.
Cons: Because they were chewy, I often found myself munching on leftover specks stuck in the teeth. Usually I don’t mind food like that, but it isn’t the best surprise when you are huffing up a big hill. The potatoes also made me pretty thirsty. The combination of the dry food and the extra salt had me sucking down more of my water supply than I would have liked. The other downside is the amount of fiber. These guys aren’t going to send you running deep into the woods, but with 7g, they have a healthy dose of the stuff.
Facts (per cup, 200g):
- Calories – 180
- Sodium – 72mg
- Potassium – Baked, with skin 508 mg
- Carbohydrates – 41g
- Fiber – 7g
- Vitamin A – 769%
- Vitamin C 65%
Fruit Puree (Buddy Fruits):
These fruit puree blends are awesome. They are designed as fruit snacks for children, and are small pouches filled with a fruit puree blend with almost the consistency of apple sauce. I’ve noticed how much popularity the little fruit snack packs are gaining by the variety I see popping up in all the grocery stores. While they are all pretty similar, these packs can really vary in price. I found these Buddy Fruits for about $1 at Harris Teeter. Another brand I would recommend is the Peter Rabbit Organics, which can be found at Whole Foods and Starbucks.
What is inside is literally pureed fruit. All natural, no preservatives (other than lime juice), and often organic. This is the easiest fuel I’ve ever taken down during a run, and the best part is, they were freak’n delicious!
Pros: Super easy to eat, delicious, and cooling. They didn’t make me thirsty at all, which was a very welcomed change from your typical sports Gel.
Cons: They are big and bulky. Not only is the package itself about the size of two ClifShots (which are already bigger than a Gu), the little childproof cap adds a lot to the size both before you eat it and after. While I can fit two Gus in a typical running short’s pocket, I’m not even sure if I could fit one of these. You’d need to be running with a running vest or have some other sort of carrying method. The other downside is even though it is bigger than a Gu, it only provides about half the nutrients. I did enjoy a good sugar rush, though, from the natural sugars of the fruit.
- Calories: 60
- Sodium 10mg
- Potassium – No Info
- Carbohydrates: 15g
- Fiber: 1g
Almonds are about as easy as they come. These tasty little nuts need no prep time, no cook time, and leave literally no waste. Nuts have been a staple for hikers for as long as hiking has been a thing, and I find that carrying a small pouch with me on the long run can really provide a good snack. They are high calorie and high in carbohydrates, which make them good for the refuel.
Pros: They are easy and light. Almonds are a quick fuel with virtually zero hassle. Plus they are high in just about all the good stuff you look for except sodium. The almond is a clean nut with tons of the good fats.
Cons: You’ll be sucking these pieces out from between your teeth and behind your gums for a long time. Just be careful when eating them quickly and breathing heavy. They also don’t have much sodium, so if you have an option for lightly salted, that might be a better pick.
Facts (1 cup):
- Calories – 680
- Sodium – n/a
- Potassium – 206mg
- Carbohydrates - 24g
- Fiber – 9g
I had great experiences with all three alternatives. They all offered good fuel for the long run and were pretty easy to carry and deal with. All three were also easier to digest and better on the stomach than a gel. As far as taste goes, I’d have to say that the fruit puree pouches from Buddy Fruits are the winner. They were delicious and the cool paste went down very easily. But they are probably the loser when it comes to the best gel alternative. The Buddy Fruits were large and didn’t pack the punch that an energy gel gives you.
What I learned by doing this comparison is that it is really hard to find something that targets the areas needed as well as energy gel. All that money and research seems to have worked in creating a product that provides little more than the nutrients being burned over hours on the trail. But I also learned that nature gives us plenty of good alternatives to add into the mix.
For my next big race in June, the DC North Face Endurance 50 miler, I’m planning to use a combination of these alternatives in conjunction with some Gu to fuel the run. Adding alternatives will make everything go smoother on the stomach and the head, as well as give me the perfect mix of foods, flavors, and fuel for a strong run.
Looking for Other Natural Ways to Fuel Your Runs?
Check out Matt Frazier’s ebook Fuel Your Run with Pinole and Chia! Made famous from Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run about the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, Pinole and Chia seeds have become a staple for natural sources of energy in the ultrarunning world. Fuel Your Run with Pinole and Chia offers up everything from pre and post run recipes for things like waffles and smoothies, to portable mid-run treats like natural energy bars. Click here to view more details. You wont regret it!