Understanding the Four Categories of Running Nutrition

During the later months of summer marathon training is usually in full effect. Runners are likely to hear or see their peers talking or posting on social media about running nutrition supplements, leaving some scratching their asking themselves questions such as:

  1. Should I be taking nutrition?

  2. What type of nutrition should I be taking?

  3. When should I take it?

Nutritional running fuel is generally loaded with carbohydrates. This is because a runner’s primary fuel sources are carbohydrates(in the form of blood glucose and glycogen) and fats. When your body runs out of its carbohydrate resources, you’ll be forced to slow down.

Should I be taking race nutrition?

It depends. While everybody is different, race fuel or nutrition becomes essential for most runners after 90 minutes of running.

The average runner will deplete his or her carbohydrate and glycogen reserve around this time, failing to account for additional nutritional intake during the race. This is one of the main reasons many marathoners “bonk” or hit the “wall” around the 17-20 mile mark.

What type of race nutrition should I be taking?

Navigating the nutrition wall at one of our stores can seem like a daunting task. There are varying amount of calories, carbohydrates, sugars, and more in each product. These ingredients are then packed into four consistencies for consumption: Gels, chews, hydration, and bars.

The type of nutrition you take is dependent on how you feel. We all store fat and glycogen differently and utilize the storage at different rates. Therefore, when it comes to sports nutrition, what works for your friend might not work for you. Experimenting with timing, serving size, and product takes time, so we recommend using your nutrition while training so you know what to expect come race day.

Below we break down the four essential nutrition types and one bonus product, giving you a quick summary, ingredient breakdown, the benefits of the ingredients, and when to take them. While we try to give you a comprehensive rundown, we highly recommend coming into our store, talking with one of our experience associates, and working together to find a solution for you.

Gels

Gels or “goo” are solid carbohydrate and are usually sold in single-use packets, usually containing 100 calories. They are thick syrups and are intended to be washed down with a small amount of water.

Gels are a great option for a few reasons. Some athletes find it difficult to actually ingest large amounts of a sports drink without suffering from bloating and fullness. Gels are much more energy-dense than sports drinks, and this in turn makes it a lot more manageable to hit high levels of carbohydrate intake during a marathon or other long-distance event. Lastly, gels come in an array of flavors and are easy to transport in a pocket. Ultimately, gels pack a large punch in a small package, making it a fan favorite.

It is generally recommended you take one gel packet 15 minutes before activity and take one packet every 45 minutes thereafter.

Brands we carry include GU Energy Gels, CLIF Shots, Huma Chia Energy Gel, and Gatorade Endurance Gels. While most ingredients are similar between brands, the types of sugar, consistency, and caffeine amount used vary.

Gatorade Endurance's new gel formula is the thinnest, least viscous gel we've seen on the market, as seen in the above video.

Chews

Similar to liquid gels, chews are “solids” are sugary, carbohydrate-dense chewable foods that much resemble fruit snacks for kids and should be followed by a swig or two of water.

Chews have their place over gels. The solid consistency is familiar and more easy to digest, while some find syrupy gels difficult to stomach. Chews are less messy and give the runner the option to pick their serving size, and stash the rest for later, but they also take up more room in your pocket or waist pack.

Nutritionally speaking, chews carry similar ingredients to gels. Some pack even more carbohydrates than gels, but in multiple serving sizes. Most chews contain caffeine for an extra energy boost combined with a substantial amount of sugar.

It is generally recommended to eat one packet every hour during activity. Similar to gels, you can also take one or two chews 15 minutes before activity so they will kick in when you need them, depending on your fitness level.

The two brands of chews we carry are CLIF Bloks Energy Chews and Honey Stinger Energy Chews in an assortment of flavors.

Bars

Bars might be the most delicious nutrition option and also the most versatile. Bars are fully-solidified food bars that can also be referred to as protein bars or energy bars. They are packed with carbohydrates, sodium(which you’ll be losing with sweat), sugar(sometimes both natural or unnatural), and depending on the bar, protein.

Bars may be the easiest on the taste buds, they also are harder to consume during your run, especially on warm days, they won’t digest as quickly as a gel or chew, and they are harder to store in your pocket or belt.

The difficult part about choosing when to eat bars, is that not all bars are created equal. Some bars do not contain protein, making them a good option for quick energy. You can eat one of these 15 minutes before activity and supplement it with a gel or chew every 45-60 minutes thereafter. If you choose to not eat a bar before activity and choose your go-to pre-race breakfast, you can eat a bar mid-race, just keep in mind how your stomach will react to potential protein and fiber. Lastly, bars make a great post-race recovery nutrition option due to the protein, which helps repair muscles.

We currently carry four brands of bars. The GU Stroopwafel, RxBar, Picky Bars, and Generation UCAN Snack Bars.

Generation UCAN's bar just hit the market in Cinnamon Swirl and Coffee Bean flavors, both include UCAN's patented SuperStarch carbohydrate.

Hydration Formulas

Obviously, hydration is the most important nutrient in running and water is a great way to stay hydrated but with today’s nutritionists, there are flavorful formulas that pack a greater punch than water.

Hydration formulas contain an abundance of electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium) will help alleviate cramps, help muscles function, communicate and burn energy efficiently. Formulas also contain carbohydrates, allowing the body to absorb the carbohydrates at a quick rate, providing quick fuel and helping to replenish electrolytes to the body that are lost during perspiration. Formulas usually come in powder or tablet form, allowing you to have time to prepare your concoction the night before.

For activity lasting longer than 60 minutes, it is recommended to use a formula with added supplements rather than water. Drink small amounts of hydration formula every 10 to 15 minutes, while hydrating with water regularly days and hours leading up to your event and after your event.

We carry three hydration formulas, nuun, Gatorade Endurance, and Skratch Labs. Get a taste of nuun at one of our hydration station locations. Gatorade Endurance will be on the Chicago Marathon course as well as other Chicagoland races. Skratch Labs offers a full serving of fruit in one serving.

nuun's dissolvable tablets are easy to take on the go and also offer a vitamin and caffeine option.

Bonus: Generation UCAN

Generation UCAN’s bar was mentioned in our bar category but its hydration formula deserves a category of its own.

Generation UCAN's revolutionary nutrition delivers steady, long-lasting energy without the spike and crash of sugar-based fuels, due to its unique SuperStarch carbohydrate in UCAN that was originally developed for kids with a life threatening blood sugar disease. SuperStarch allows the body to tap into fat stores while providing steady glucose levels similar to how a hybrid car that runs on battery power but can also tap into its gas tank as needed.

Its ability to deliver large amounts of sustained carbohydrates while including 0 grams of sugar is what sets Generation UCAN apart.

Drink one serving of Generation UCAN 30 minutes prior to activity for maximum effect or ingest UCAN with protein immediately after hard sessions to allow the body to reduce carbohydrate intake in the remaining meals while still feeling full and reducing overeating. Most people find doing so helps them keep their weight under control.

Conclusion: Take Notes.

Finding the right nutrition regime for you is similar to our shoe fit process. Not one product works for everyone. Everyone’s stomach sensitivities and digestive tracts are different and everyone’s tastebuds prefer one flavor over another.

To find what helps your performance, we recommend taking good notes. Make mental and physical notes of what product you try, when you ingest it, when you start to feel effects, and what type of effects you feel. Cross out what doesn’t work for you and stock up on what does work.

Work with our knowledgeable associates. Odds are, they went through their fair share of trial and error with nutrition to find out what works for them and they can help you find what’s right for you.

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