Running on Empty: Endurance Fuels for Runners
To fuel or not to fuel, that is NOT the question. If you’re looking for a debate then you’ve come to the wrong place. My intention with this post is to give an unbiased opinion of fuel types, but also make sure you better understand what it is you’re consuming in these supplements. In my distance running career I’ve completed the gauntlet of fueling. Name the type or pick a brand, and there’s a good chance I’ve tried it. As you can imagine this has forced me to develop some allegiances and I’d like to share my thoughts with you. By no means are my opinions absolute and I one hundred percent urge you to test to find which fuel your body reacts to best. To approach this topic I’ve grouped the fuels in to 3 groups: Gel, Chew, and Powder. Each supplement has it’s pros as it does its cons, and I’ll be touching on these as we go.
Before we jump in however, I want to briefly assume the role of Bill Nye (The ONLY scientist in my opinion). Essentially the fuels you’re consuming are highly concentrated carbohydrates, which happen to be our body’s favorite energy source. Carbs exist in 2 forms, glycogen and glucose. Glycogen is tapped first and when diminished our body will start to use the glucose. Because glycogen lives in the muscles, when depleted, fatigue can set in. The fuel you ingest is intended to build up your glycogen levels and delay the tapping of glucose from the blood stream. Other chemical factors come into play with the inclusion of things like caffeine and electrolytes, but this is the basis for our use of fuels. Enough science though, let’s talk fuel.
First up are gels. These are probably the most traditional form of fuel and also the group with the largest allegiance. Existing in a sticky gelatinous-syrupy hybrid form, gels can be consumed quickly but always recommended to ingest with water. The perks gels are numerous. They are easy to ingest and require no chewing, there are a plethora of flavor options, and they require little space when carrying on your runs. For me however, the gels are no good. This is based on their most glaring weakness, which is the upset stomach that is often associated with gels. I fall victim to this every time. Secondly is the unique texture for which many people have an aversion towards. Couple the texture with the upset stomach, and come race day you may face major problems. Regardless I have found some GU favorites including Jet Blackberry and Blueberry Pomegranate (I’ve yet to try Peanut Butter which I have to assume is delicious!)
Chews (or Chomps) are up next. Chews are very much akin to a gummy bear, only with a more dense consistency. Also recommended for consumption with water, chews are an excellent alternative for those squeamish towards the texture of gels. The chews are in my opinion delicious, and although not as immediate as gels, I’ve found them overall equally effective. Although there is still a risk of upsetting your stomach, I’ve found the onset is much less likely when consuming chews. The major downside of chews is ironically inherited from their name. Unlike gel, chews need to be broken down by your teeth before swallowing. I’ve tried running and chewing. I as well as every mother on the planet would advise against this. The second downside is not universal, but depending on the chew you select the package size can be a burden. Luckily GU Chomps are as equally compact as the gels, and in favorite flavors like Watermelon, they can’t be beat.
The final fuel group is powders. Assuming you’re a human and consume liquids on a regular basis, you should have no trouble adapting to the consumption of powders. Simply dissolve in water and you’re ready to fuel! Personally this is my favorite. Unlike the other 2 water is required with powders. Because of this you’re killing 2 birds with 1 stone which is always a good thing, unless you’re literally killing birds with stones, no good. You also have the ability to actively control the intensity of fuel, which is directly correlated to flavor as well. If you prefer a more subtle flavor option, powders are for you. However this is also a pitfall. Despite recommended consumption is included on packaging, It’s much easier to “mis-fuel” as the doses are not as static as the gels and chews. The main drawbacks of the powder are the logistics and bulk, they require a plan. Ideally you mix before and carry water with you, but in a marathon(+) situation you’ll likely require more than is initially mixed in one bottle. Now you need a fuel belt, or at least a large pocket for powder reserves. Don’t forget you’ll also need to stop and mix if you choose to forego the fuel belt. If the logistics are manageable to you, I highly recommend the powder option, and namely the GU Tropical Fruit Roctane mix.
Once again I implore you to experiment and find what’s right for you. Hopefully you’ve gained a direction or at least an initial starting point towards finding your fuel. I’ll leave you with a few keys to success. 1) Never try something new on race day, unless you really enjoy pit stopping that is. 2) Don’t fuel just to fuel. If you find you don’t need it, more power to you! 3) Develop a routine. Come race day, winging it is the last thing you want to do when approaching fuel consumption. Now get out there and burn some fuel!