5 Fuel Options For a Long Workout
5 different things you can eat during a long workout to help boost your performance.
Author Profile: Matt Kadey
Matthew “Matt” Kadey is a registered dietitian based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada who specializes in nutrition pieces and recipe development. Matt is a contributing health writer whose pieces and photography have appeared in a range of online and print publications such as Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Clean Eating and more.
His work in food journalism earned him a James Beard Award in 2013. He’s published three cookbooks and his philosophy centers on consuming whole foods and getting plenty of exercise so you can eat more of them. You can learn more about Matt by going to www.matthewkadey.com or following along on Instagram and Facebook, @rocketfuelfood, @bt700bikepacking, Facebook.com/rocketfuelfoods and Facebook.com/BT700.
Whether you’re a paid professional athlete or a weekend warrior who just wants to keep up the pace, what you put in your body during a workout or race is crucial for fueling hard-charging muscles. And it’s called “fuel” for a reason. Just like gas for a car, proper nourishment gives your body the energy it needs to crank out the miles. Proper workout nutrition can mean the difference between a high-flying workout and one that putters along.
Beyond the hour mark of exercising, especially if really going hard, your energy supply is on the clock. As soon as your muscle energy storage (glycogen) becomes depleted and your blood sugar levels begin taking a nosedive, it’s just a matter of time before you reach the bonk zone. So to train seriously and race well, you need to delay the fuel tank from reaching empty as long as possible by taking in some energy.
Distilled from science, here are some fuel options that you can count on to go the extra mile leaving energy to spare.
Turns out the inexpensive parched grapes can help you raise (pun intended) your endurance. Research in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that raisins were just as effective as carbohydrate-based sport chews at keeping runners’ endurance levels up during an 80-minute run followed by a 5-K time trail. Both the raisins and chews improved run speed during the time trial compared to just drinking water. These results should not be very surprising since raisins contain a cocktail of fast-working natural sugars that supply a useful energy source for muscles in motion. Additionally, grabbing a few handfuls of raisins before working up a sweat could also benefit your performance. An investigation in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that when male and female athletes were fed 1 gram carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight, from either raisins or a sports gel 45 minutes before a 1-hour cycling test, there were no differences in performance.
A consistent source of fast-digesting carbohydrates like the glucose and fructose in raisins can help spare muscle glycogen, improve oxygen delivery to your working muscles and prevent performance-sapping drops in blood sugar. Other dried fruit like apricots and prunes should be just as effective as raisins at helping you to keep up the pace.
For transport when on the move, place raisins in a small zip-top bag and stash in a jersey pocket or fuel belt. If using raisins as your fuel source during exercise sessions, you’ll want to eat about a 1/2 cup for each hour to take in enough carbs. And make sure to consume them with a few big swigs of water to improve digestion.
Each pouch of Chargel has what your body needs when your heart rate is skyrocketing and your body is blowing through energy. Namely a blend of fast-acting carbs, dextrin and sucrose, in a highly portable pouch for on-the-go fueling. If you’re new to dextrin, it’s simply made by decomposing starch into smaller molecules that are more digestible.
Carbohydrates are the most efficient source of fuel for our working muscles, they’re what helps energizes our bodies - including our brains - throughout exercise. To prevent your blood sugar and muscle carbohydrate stores called glycogen from falling to the point where you hit the wall during a long workout, it can be helpful to consume roughly 60 grams of easy-to-digest carbohydrates like those in Chargel for each hour of exercise for workouts lasting longer than 90 minutes. Some athletes who have trained their guts to handle a bigger load will take in up to 90 grams of carbs for each hour of endurance activity. A pouch of Chargel contains 45 grams of carbs, therefore it can easily help meet your energy needs during exercise. In other words, consider the energy gel drink Chargel endurance-athlete rocket fuel. When you suck back a Chargel in a situation where energy is needed, it may take no more than several minutes to feel the impact –a physical replenishment closely followed by a mental pick-me-up. And with proper fueling the back half of your workout or race will feel as good, and sometimes even better, than the front.
Cyclists with a banana sticking out of their jersey pockets are onto something. A study in the journal Plos One reported that during a 75-kilometer bike ride, bananas when consumed with water were just as effective as a sports drink at bolstering endurance. It was also noted that changes in blood sugar, inflammation and measures of immunity were similar between the two trials. Bananas contain a winning mix of carbs and electrolytes like potassium that will likely benefit your performance. Plus, the higher water content than what is in dried fruit means a bonus of hydration. More proof that Mother Nature knows a thing or two about fueling your workouts.
A single large banana contains about 30 grams of carbs, which is the minimum amount of carbohydrates you want to consume during each hour of endurance exercise like running or cycling. Keep in mind that those with some black spots on their skin have higher amounts of easily digested sugars than green-skinned bananas, which contain harder-to-digest carbs and, thus, less ideal for race fuel. But as with all your fuel, you’ll want to experiment with using bananas as a fuel source during training sessions to gauge how well your gut responds instead of trying them for the first time during a big race.
More proof that honey is nature’s sweetest treat. A team of researchers from The Cooper Institute Center for Human Performance and Nutrition Research, Dallas, Texas discovered that endurance athletes who consumed 15 grams (about 1 tablespoon) of honey, dextrose, or a placebo containing no carbs every 16-kilometers of a 64K cycling effort were able to go faster and produce a larger power output when honey or dextrose were consumed compared to the carb-free placebo. There were no significant differences between the honey and dextrose concerning performance. Researchers suggest that consuming sugar blends, such as honey, which contains both fructose and glucose, during exercise can be particularly effective at ramping up performance by improving absorption rates.
Even a very lean person has enough fat stores to sustain hours of exercise, which makes a dietary source of fat during exercise less pressing than carbohydrates, like what are in honey and Chargel, which can be used up much more quickly as a workout progresses. Fat and protein can also slow down digestion which may lead to digestive woes in some people.
You probably don’t want to take a bear-shaped bottle with you on a run, so try mixing 2 tablespoons honey and water in a gel flask and sucking one of these back for each hour of exercise. For hot, sweaty workouts, add a pinch of sea salt. You can also find skinny tubes of honey in some shops that are easily transported when on the go.
Can’t stomach the thought of downing another saccharine energy chew? Maybe it’s time to fuel up on something a little more savory. Consuming potato puree during endurance exercise maintains blood sugar and boosts performance as well as energy gels do, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. In the randomized-crossover design investigation, trained athletes who took in potato puree during a 2-hour cycling challenge that included some high-intensity intervals followed by a time trial performed identically well to those taking commercial gels, and 6.5 minutes faster than those consuming no carbohydrates. During both carb-based trials, the participants got 15 grams of carbs, in either gel or potato form, every 15 minutes to supply 60 grams of carbs per hour. This is about the number of carbohydrates for each hour of endurance exercise recommended by sports dietitians and in sports nutrition research. The spud and gel-powered athletes saw similar increases in blood sugar and heart rate, and reported a lower perceived effort compared to when they received no carbs. The upshot is that potatoes offer a very cost-effective way to fuel your endurance workouts.
One caveat is that fueling on potatoes resulted in more GI symptoms including bloating and gas than what occurred with gels. The higher rate of stomach issues was likely because the study participants had to eat more potato—4.5 ounces per dose versus 0.8 ounces of gel—to get the necessary prescribed amount of carbohydrates. This suggests that potatoes may be best employed as part of a diverse fueling strategy, rather than the sole source of your energy-boosting carbs. Make sure to practice using potatoes during training sessions to determine how well tolerated they are by your stomach when working up a sweat.
When you’re out for the long haul bringing along some potato fuel is not out of the question. Simply steam or boil a few baby (new) potatoes, which are easier to transport than larger spuds, slice them open slightly and stuff with a few sprinkles of salt. Let cool and transport in a zip-top bag. Or, if you can, stash some cooked potato at aid stations which you can eat when you are paused for a mid-race fuel stop.