A commonly asked question these days by runners is “Can I eat real food instead of sports nutrition products?” There are numerous options for fueling your runs, so let’s explore a few considerations in more detail to help you decide what is right for you.
First, let’s clarify what is meant by “engineered foods”. Technically, this would be any kind of sports nutrition product such as gels, chews, beans, blocks, powdered drink mixes, and bars. In contrast, “whole foods” can include fruits or dried fruits, potatoes, homemade chia gels, or sandwiches. Some foods can fall into both categories. For example, certain nutrition bars that contain few ingredients without fillers or artificial ingredients may be considered more of a whole food option.
As to what is right for you, here are some considerations to ponder:
1. What do you tolerate best? Aside from having unique flavor preferences, some of us have stomachs and guts that simply do not tolerate certain kinds of calorie sources. If you cannot chew and run at the same time, you may want to rely on liquid calorie sources which typically will be a sports nutrition powdered formula. Depending on run intensity, you can take nibbles of solid food to get needed calories and satisfy hunger. Beware that during your runs, it is not the time to consume much protein or fat-containing foods (ultra runners can be an exception to this) as these macronutrients slow down how quickly any carbohydrate will be digested. Also know that the very act of running can cause gastrointestinal (GI) distress when consuming calories (and especially when over-consuming calories!) due to the blood shunting response which occurs when the body prioritizes blood flow to the working muscles away from the stomach. Depending on the amount and type of calories you are consuming, GI distress is not acceptable and warrants experimentation with other fueling options.
2. Do you want to carry your own nutrition or rely on what the race provides? I’ve worked with plenty of personality types in the running community, so I’ve heard everything from the “I want to be self-supported!” to the “I can’t stand to be burdened with carrying an extra ounce on me!” Fortunately, many endurance running races offer both whole food options alongside the sponsored sports nutrition products at aid stations, so you can end up carrying a bit less with you. The keys here are to find out what the race offers, start practicing the fueling options during your training, and most importantly, practice the timing and intake of these options at your goal race pace. This last tip is one that most runners forget or don’t realize they need to do during training. As mentioned above, run intensity affects the tolerance you will experience when you consume calories (no matter the form), so practice your nutrition at your anticipated race pace!
3. Are you getting the calories you need? Unfortunately, most of the current sports nutrition guidelines are still “general recommendations” for hourly calorie intake typically between 200-300 calories. Additionally, the predominant advice is still to push high amounts of simple sugars via engineered foods. The tides are changing now towards personalized sports nutrition recommendations and the realization that we can actually teach our bodies to rely less on frequent and large amounts of simple sugars by first manipulating daily nutrition patterns. In the end, this means that runners can potentially have less ‘worry’ about high hourly calorie demands (i.e., 3 gels per hour). No matter what, runners can easily meet calorie needs with whole food options but testing various options and timing strategies is essential.
As with many topics in sports nutrition, there is rarely a “one size fits all” answer. The same holds true for whether engineered or whole foods are best. It really depends on your health goals, individual tolerance, personal preference, and possibly the type of runner you are. Have fun exploring and experimenting with different options to see what is best for you.
-Dina Griffin, MS, RD, CSSD, METS II