Fuel Your Runs: so many options!

The industry of endurance sport has grown dramatically over the course of the last couple of decades. Like all other aspects of this industry, Nutrition labs are learning more and more every day about how to give athletes that extra edge needed to perform at their best. The science behind the fuel is complex and like the elite athletes themselves, highly competitive.

As we look to fuel our runs, one quick trip to your local run specialty store will show you just how complex endurance fuel has become, offering a dizzying array of products, options, and brands. How do we know what we need for our long workout endeavors?

Basically, we all have different nutrition needs and tastes, but generally, our workout fuel should include either carbohydrates or fats, depending on our needs, in a quick-to-absorb fuel. A couple swigs of water, and we top off our tank to go the distance.

So in an attempt to catalogue some of the more popular products and brands, what follows are the basics across the endurance nutrition industry. Although products vary from brand to brand, generally speaking, here is what you can expect from the following:

  • Gels — the consistency of frosting or toothpaste, these packets go down easily with a few ounces of water, and contain about 100 calories in a single serving packet. These provide a source of carbohydrates in the form of maltodextrin and fructose.
  • Chews/Gummies — Like Gummy Bears or Fruit Snacks, chews and gummies provide the same carb sources as gels in a chewable form. Check the labels, because packaging might include more than one serving size.
  • Hydration Mixes — Comes in either individual packets for on the go needs or in bulk tubs, these mixes contain 50-100 calories per serving in the form of carbs and electrolytes (sodium) for boosting both hydration and fueling.
  • Drink tabs — May only contain 10-20 calories per serving, but are primarily an electrolyte replenishment (like hydration mixes, but without the carb calories). Great if you want to just boost your water a bit.
  • Endurance Drink Mixes — Chock full of all your caloric and nutrition needs, used instead of gels, bars, chews, etc. Great for longer bouts like multi-hour/multi-sport endeavors. May contain 250 calories per serving of carbs and electrolytes.
  • Bars/Bites/Waffles — Carbohydrate-based products are great for pre-workout fuel boost or even during if you need a little something to take up the empty space in your belly when you have a longer workout.
  • “Real” Food — other sources of fuel really boils down to the quick-grab items you’d find in the later stages of a marathon: bananas, orange slices, pretzels, and even potato chips (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it — tastes really good in the last few miles of a marathon).
  • Recovery products — Designed for consumption immediately after your workout, recovery foods and drinks are higher in protein than the products used during workouts. Protein aids in the recovery and repair of muscles.

Many of the following companies offer a combination of the above list in their product lines, and while there are quite a few more than this, here’s what you might find at your local running store:

Gu Energy Labs — Gels, Chews, Drink mixes, Hydration tabs and mixes, Recovery drinks, Stroopwafels; offers, Gluten-free, vegan, and Kosher products. Flavors abound from this 25-year old company

Clif Bar and Company — Known originally for their bars (great for backcountry outings), Clif has ventured into offering bars specifically for women (Luna), and children (Clif Kids). They also offer endurance gels, chews (called Bloks), Electrolyte mixes, and Recovery Mixes.

Nuun Hydration — Until recently, this company offered only a dissolvable tablet to “Make your Water Count.” The basic formula remains the same — an electrolyte enriched tablet with a mere 10 calories per serving (for a 16 ounce water bottle). They’ve expanded their basic line to include Nuun Immunity with echinacea and other antioxidants, a Vitamins formula with everything your favorite multivitamin has, and the new Performance line for longer endurance activities. Nuun is all about the clean and natural hydration sources, and is my preferred beverage…after my coffee.

Hammer Nutrition — Offering bars, gels, supplements, and recovery products, Hammer Nutrition is probably best known for their endurance powders. Heed Sports Drink is a full fuel source in a beverage, but without the sticky sweetness of other sugary sports drinks.

Pacific Health Labs — Creators of the Accelerade Sports Drink and the Endurox Recovery mix, this company also offers gels and supplements for all facets of training.

Tailwind Nutrition — This company is currently offering beverage options for recovery, endurance, and hydration in a variety of flavors and is somewhat of a hidden gem in the noise that is the Sports Drink industry.

Skratch Labs — This company has a little bit of everything: gels, chews, drink mixes, bars, and recovery options, but the most intriguing thing I saw on their website was a Cookie Mix! Also, check out their cookbook, The Feed Zone. Great for athletic healthy eating!

Honey Stinger — Gluten free and Organic Sports Nutrition As their name suggests, Honey Stinger started out with honey sweetened products, including waffles, chews, and gels, bars, and even organic honey!

Sport Beans (Jelly Belly) — Yes, this candy company ventured into endurance sport with Jelly Belly Sport Beans. While it seems like an odd fit, the sports beans are formulated quite differently than their “guess the flavor” counterparts. For one, Sport Beans have a tartness to them as they are higher in electrolyte sources and important vitamins and minerals critical to athletic performance. These Beans are currently offered as the on-course nutrition for RunDisney races.

Huma Gel — This new product line is all natural food sources in a gel packet. Where other gels contain processed sugars and sugar alcohols, Huma Gels are basically a puree of all real foods and chia seeds. They come in a huge variety of flavors and all the ingredients are pronounceable!!

Check out the video above for some tips on incorporating nutrition into your long runs!