We only have a limited capacity to store carbohydrate as glycogen in our muscles. During the course of a race, that glycogen is converted into glucose which powers your muscles. You will need to consume some extra carbohydrate during a race which lasts more than 90 minutes or so, unless you want to ‘hit the wall’. The rate at which you use up your glycogen stores is very individual, and depends partly on how fast you can run before your body switches from predominantly burning body fat to burning just carbohydrate, known as metabolic efficiency, and also on how well you stocked up your glycogen stores in the 24 hours or so before the race.
Sports nutrition research suggests that you need to consume around 60g of carbohydrate per hour to optimise your race performance. So what are the alternatives to energy gels? Here are some suggestions:
Branded sports drinks
If you can’t tolerate or don’t like the one provided on the course, you will need to carry your own. Look for one which has maltodextrin (a form of glucose) or isomaltulose as its main ingredient and doesn’t contain any fructose, as these are likely to be easier on the stomach and less sweet than other energy drinks.
Homemade sports drink
A 500ml bottle of fluid needs to deliver 30g of carbohydrate for optimal results. Try adding 37ml cherry juice concentrate (Cherry Active £15.99 for 473ml) to 500ml of coconut water.
Jellies and chews
These can be eaten in small quantities, which is easier on the stomach than gulping down a gel. Try Clif Shot Bloks (£2.49 for six pieces). Each piece delivers 8g of carbohydrate. Or carry a packet of traditional jelly babies.
Chia seed gels
A good alternative to traditional gels for those looking for a more natural and less sickly product. You fill them with water and the chia seeds form a gel in about ten minutes.
You may prefer to choose natural wholefoods to help fuel your long runs and races. These are perhaps best suited to running at a slower pace, as solid foods are harder to digest at high intensities. They make a particularly good choice for ultras – any race over marathon distance – when you are likely to want some ‘real food’, and may be carrying a back pack with you to store your supplies.
A medium banana gives you 27g of carbohydrates. A 2012 study on trained cyclists published in the journal PLoS One found that eating bananas during a 75k time trial had the same effect on performance as consuming a sports drink.
These are easy to carry in a bag or small box, and a 30g handful gives you 24g of carbs. A 2013 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that 5K time trial performance in a group of runners was the same whether they consumed raisins or energy chews beforehand.
Almonds and goji berries
A tasty combination that provides 14g of carbs per 60g (a large handful). Soak the almonds in water overnight to make them easier to digest. Good to use alongside some higher carbohydrate options.