What can I eat instead of gels?

"I know I should be taking in some calories and electrolytes during my runs, but gels upset my stomach. What should I do?"

Sport gels are notorious for causing upset stomach. As handy as they are, sometimes sport gels don’t sit well and other options need to be explored.

What is a sport gel?

To figure out what to do instead of a sport gel, consider what the gel provides. Sport gels are concentrated carbohydrate and electrolytes designed to be fast replacements of sugars and salt that you burn through during longer runs. It’s this concentration of carbohydrate that makes gels difficult to digest.

Before trying other carb replacement options, troubleshoot digestive problems by ensuring that gels are taken with plenty of water. Also choose gels that are made with more than one or two types of carbohydrate, such as maltodextrin, glucose and fructose. The greater the variety of carbohydrate sources, the easier it is to digest.

Go for a smaller dose of carbs.

For convenience designed for runners, sport chews may be an option. Sport chews are also concentrated carbohydrate and electrolytes that need to be consumed with water, but the amount of carbohydrate per chew is much smaller. A gel typically contains about 25-30 grams carbohydrate and once you open the gel pack, you’ve committed to taking it all in one shot. Sport chews provide about 5-8 grams carbohydrate per chew so that you can take in smaller amounts of carbohydrate more often; this makes chews easier to tolerate because you can spread the 25-30 grams of carbohydrate out over half and hour instead of ingesting 30 grams of carbohydrate in 30 seconds.

Sport drinks may also be easier to tolerate because the reduced concentration of sugar coming into the intestinal tract supports improved carbohydrate absorption.

Try solid food options

Sometimes, it is the sugar in gels, chews and sport drinks that is hard to tolerate. In these cases, choosing whole foods may be an option. Using foods to replace carbohydrates is fairly straightforward, however, replacing electrolytes can be more complex. Combine any of these whole food options with your favorite electrolyte powder or tablets for a complete replacement for sport gels.

25-30 grams carbohydrate from real food

1 banana

6 pretzels

2 Fig Newton’s

1 small granola bar

¼ peanut butter and fruit spread sandwich

Using real food during a run has its own digestive challenges. Most runners don’t want the hassle of carrying food with them, and chewing and breathing can prove difficult.  Real food may be a way to lessen the use of sport products, but most runners don’t rely solely on real food due to the intensity of running. Runners that go at a slower pace tend to do better with solid foods than those that are running at a faster pace.

Be proactive

Don’t ignore a sensitive stomach. It is a sign of something amiss that needs to be addressed, and if disregarded will seal your fate to bonking when you can’t get fuel in during longer runs. If you’ve tried everything and it’s simply difficult to consume any type of sport product or food during a run, work with an experienced sport nutritionist that can help you uncover any underlying factors that would reduce your tolerance to sport products.

Additionally, work with your sport nutritionist to train with a lower carbohydrate diet. Training with a carbohydrate deficient diet can improve your body’s efficiency to break down fats for energy during exercise. This allows carbohydrate that is stored in muscles to be spared, which reduces your need for carbohydrate replacement during exercise.

Be proactive in uncovering GI problems and experimenting with different types of sport products, foods and nutrition training plans to find what works for you.

Hana A. Feeney, MS, RD is an open-minded, progressive dietitian that blends evidence based nutritional science with intuitive eating and cutting-edge functional medicine. Hana specializes in sport nutrition, digestive health, fertility, hormonal health and eating disorders. Visit http://www.NourishingResults.com to explore, read, cook and reach out! Contact Hana directly by phone at 520-429-3418 or via email at Hana@NourishingResults.com.

Please remember that the information contained in this article is provided for informational purposes only. It is general information that may not apply to you as an individual, and is not a substitute for personalized nutrition advice or healthcare. Never disregard medical or nutritional advice or delay seeking medical care because of something you have read or accessed through this article.


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