8 real foods and performance products to boost your energy and power you through the finish line.
Christina Simonetti and Caitlin Carlson 1 / 9
Fall marathon season is around the corner and if you're running New York City, Chicago, Berlin, Marine Corps, or any of the other big ones that are just around the corner, you're probably already well in to your longer training runs. That means you’re looking at 30+ miles/week—even early on in the game. And the big day itself is (obviously) 26.2 miles which takes most men 4 hours, 13 minutes, and 23 seconds, The Guardianreports. With that much exercise, the type and amount of food you're eating during your runs is key to enhancing performance.
Exercising for over 90 minutes depletes energy and naturally compels the body to search for fuel. Our muscles get that fuel primarily from stored carbohydrates and stored fat—but, our carbohydrate stores are more limited than our fat stores making it vital to replenish them before it’s too late (think: "bonking" or hitting "the wall" at mile 20.) Plus, it's not just about your performance: If your carb levels run low (or worse, run out), your body is forced to revert to your protein stores for energy, which prevents that protein from building muscle.
So, what should you eat? The best way to find what works for you is to experiment in your training so come race day, you're not trying something new (this is marathon running 101: Never try anything new on race day whether that's new shoes, apparel, foods, or drinks!) And while every runner's needs are different and dependent on their personal goal, there are certain things that are pretty good bets—and others that definitely don't work. That's why we spoke to three experts on the topic: Marni Sumbal, R.D., an exercise physiologist and founder of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition, New York Sports Med Running Director Francis Diano, and Elizabeth Corkum, New York City-based running coach and ISSA certified specialist in sports nutrition.
While their preferences vary, they agree on the basics: For optimal marathon performance, go for foods (roughly 100 calories every 45 minutes) with ample amounts of carbohydrates (30-60g per hour) and electrolytes to help you beat the bonk, fuel your muscles, give you a boost of energy, and replenish the nutrients you lose through sweat. Ditch any food high in fiber which could cause an upset stomach and maybe a porta potty trip (or two.) Sticking to easy-to-eat foods is also smart.
Click through for our top marathon fuel picks. Just don't forget to also hydrate out there!
The tear-off opening of GU (and other gels) allows you to eat it on-the-go without any mess or stopping necessary. But what puts gels at the top of many marathon runner's list is the nutrition content—GU has just the right amount of carbohydrates, amino acids, and easy-to-digest calories to keep you feeling strong through that final .2 miles. Don't love the consistency of gels? "A helpful trick for taking in a gel is to use a gel flask and to dilute the gel with water," says Sumbal. (guenergy.com)
A favorite of triathletes, this small squeezable bottle is also a great option for long runs. The balance between electrolytes, amino acids, and calories can fuel an entire run. Sip it slowly over three hours rather than guzzling it—note it packs the same calories and carbs as four gels! "Practice with them on long runs to learn how to eyeball how much to consume each time so that you don't make any huge errors on race day," cautions Corkum. When you run out, you can fill the bottle with water at the next aid station. (firstendurance.com)
Despite having no real nutritional value in a real-life setting, grabbing gummy bears during a marathon is probably the only time we’ll encourage eating candy. Odd as it may seem, at zero grams of fat but high in sugar, gummy bears fit the bill for marathon fuel. You can haul a handful of these into your mouth for fast acting energy without it bothering your gut. Just be cautious and consume the actual serving size with water (as opposed to an also sugary sports drink), per Corkum. And be aware that gummy bears "are missing out on electrolytes and caffeine, commonly found in sports nutrition [products]," says Corkum.
Want a natural alternative to gels, but don't want to pack a ziplock of raisins or pretzels in your race shorts? Try this conveniently-sized pouch which will feed your muscles and restock your energy levels with more natural ingredients (like sweet potato, organic sunflower seed butter, and organic ginger.) Our favorite part about CLIF Organic Energy Food is its array of surprising flavors—from pizza margherita to sweet potato with sea salt. (cliffbar.com)
VEGA gels are strategically designed to sustain energy levels during endurance training and are made with natural dates for sweetness instead of maltodextrin, which could cause stomach discomfort in some runners. Plus, it also packs coconut oil for an extra boost of energy. (vegasport.com)
Pretzels are easy-to-handle and add the crunch you miss out on from gels and chews. The high sodium content of this snack will naturally make you grab water to hydrate your system, while the carbs will be vital for giving you energy. Plus they're low in fiber, so shouldn't bother your stomach. They do come with a few downsides: They're not the most easy-to-carry option and also lack caffeine. Nutrition: 108 calories, 23 grams carbs (1oz)