Convenient Whole Foods to Fill Your Running Belt

by Rachel Stuck, RDN

Note from the author, a fellow endurance junkie:

As a fellow runner who completed her first marathon in the Fall of 2018, I struggled with GI distress and the battle of finding a convenient, yet real, food fueling source that didn’t leave me keeled over after pushing past the 7-mile mark. The first time I felt runner’s gut was during a 14-mile training run a few months before the big race. After several hours of painful stomach cramps and ruined dinner plans with my husband, I knew I needed to do some research to prevent that awful feeling from ever happening again. Check out 5 Ways to Beat Runner’s Gut to read more about what I have learned.

I write this article with the intention of offering ideas to those who are looking to take a whole-foods-based approach to their fueling regimen. In the interest of full transparency and honesty, I have not tried all of the recommendations included in this article, but I hope to try a few as I continue my running journey and work toward my next PR.

Rachel’s Current Fueling Picks for a 10+ mile run:

  • Pre-run: 15 Organic Saltine crackers or ¾ cup plain Cheerios 30 min before a run
  • ½ –1 Clif Bar Bolt Energy Chews (with or without caffeine) every 3 miles
  • Nuun tablets in running pack, as needed
  • Post-run: Dried pineapple, 1 cup of orange juice over ice, or crystallized ginger (and of course a well-balanced meal!)

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Consuming artificially flavored sugary gels, gummies, and drinks won’t hurt you if used in moderation, but if you find that you are grabbing several per week, it might be worth looking into other fueling sources to avoid common concerns and inflammation connected to a high-sugar diet. The gut microbiome is damaged by a high-sugar diet, which promotes the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut. Do your joints and your gut a favor and reconsider loading up on processed foods and sugar (like high-fructose corn syrup) before, during, and after your runs.

Fueling with Real Food: The Struggle

It’s pretty obvious why snacking on fresh-cut orange slices is not nearly as convenient as popping an orange-flavored gummy bear into your mouth. Not only is a juicy orange tough to enjoy while huffing and puffing, but it is also a lot larger (and heavier) than ten small pieces of candy. Also, as you may remember from the Runner’s Gut article, including too much fiber before or during a long run can exacerbate GI distress and cause food to move through the gut faster than usual.

So how can you possibly include real foods in your fueling regimen while running? Well, it’s not exactly easy. It will take a few trips of trial and error and some creativity, but you might be pleasantly surprised with how well your body and taste buds respond to the whole foods fueling suggestions below!

Dried Fruit

Dried fruit is a great source of simple sugars. With about 20–30 grams of carbohydrates per half-cup serving, dried fruit is easy to pack and eat while on the move. Remember to start slow with dried fruit because of its higher fiber content. Start by including a few pieces on a shorter run and see how your body reacts. For example, start with ¼ cup of dried cranberries in your running pack or belt for a moderate distance run (4–7 miles depending on your experience). Consider eating 3–4 cranberries every 10 minutes or every 2 miles and assessing how your body feels during and after the run.

Dried fruit to consider: apricots, dates, raisins, cranberries, apple rings, banana chips, figs, pineapple, papaya, mango

Honey, Maple Syrup, or Agave

While running or doing other strenuous exercises, your body needs simple carbohydrates to perform, and this is exactly why the market for gels, gummies, and drinks is so successful. Carbohydrates are our initial source of fuel and when our sugar, or glycogen, stores run out we become fatigued and feel as if we can not complete the last leg of the race to the best of our ability. This means it is essential for long-distance runners and other endurance athletes to include carbohydrates both in the regular diet and before a long run.

That being said, there are natural sources of simple carbohydrates. While natural is a loosely used word, we define “natural foods” as those that are minimally processed with no added artificial ingredients like dyes, sweeteners, and preservatives. Local honey, pure maple syrup, and agave all fall into the natural sweeteners category and are a good swap for artificially flavored gels, goos, and drinks. Consider using honey or maple sticks during long runs. These can usually be found at your local natural foods store or ordered online and will pack easily in your running belt. You can also add natural sweeteners to pre-run snacks or drinks. A honey-lemon beverage before or after a run is a great way to fuel your run or replenish during or after exercise.

For reference, a 1-tablespoon serving size has the following grams of carbohydrates: honey (17 grams), maple syrup (14 grams), agave (16 grams).

Looking for a post-run treat that is naturally sweetened? Consider Ixcela’s Lemon Ginger Hydration Popsicles Recipe included in the Runner’s Gut article.

Crackers or Cereal

Crackers and cereal are good sources of carbohydrates and the ingredients list on the nutrition label makes it easy to decide if they make the “real foods” list or if you’ll opt to put them back on the shelf. Rice crackers, seeded crackers, and nut-based crackers offer not only carbs but also an extra serving of the electrolyte salt. Look for lower-fiber crackers with a short list of ingredients that you can pronounce. Consider plain rice crackers or wheat crackers with no added sweeteners. You’ll be surprised how many savory crackers contain sugar!

It can also take some searching to find a variety of cereal that is both good quality and low in added sugars. Consider the classics, like Cheerios, Chex, or corn flakes. These varieties are lower in fiber and include minimal added sweeteners. The simple carbs in the cereal will help fuel your run and should feel better on the gut than gels or overly sweetened beverages. Review the nutrition label of your cereal or cracker choice to determine the serving size you want to include. Aim for 15–30 grams of carbs depending on how long of a run you are planning on completing.

Making the Switch

Making a complete shift to real food fuel will take time to work into your pre-run and fueling routine, especially if you are used to grabbing a few gels before hitting the road. Gels and gummies are convenient and are typically formulated to pack a big punch in a small serving size. While real food carbohydrate sources aren’t quite as convenient, the suggestions above can easily be put in plastic baggies and stashed in your running belt for easy access.

Also consider eating more often to ensure you are fueling with the proper amount of carbohydrates before and during the race. For example, consider having a few handfuls of cereal right before your long run and then snacking on dried cranberries every 2–3 miles if you’re planning on going for extra distance that day. Remember that not every run or workout requires supplemental fueling. For more guidance on how to fuel exercise, check out our article on how to Fuel Your Workout the Right Way!

The health of your gut microbiome is extremely important for overall health and athletic performance. Not only does your gut health affect your body’s ability to utilize nutrients and produce energy, but overtraining and exercise-induced GI distress can also damage your gut, creating an ugly cycle that no one, runner or not, would want to battle.

The Ixcela gut microbiome test gives insight into how well your diet is fueling your gut bacteria and how well your gut bacteria are doing the variety of jobs that they are responsible for. From guidance on what supplements to take, to food recommendations that help support a healthy gut microbiome, your optimal performance starts in the gut and with Ixcela. Take your gut health test today and check out the success story and testimonial from Ironman Triathlon champion Sarah Piampiano, here.

About the Author

Photo: Rachel Stuck, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Rachel Stuck has a background in culinary arts and nutrition counseling. Rachel takes a positive approach to nutrition: she avoids recommending restrictive diets and instead focuses on helping people choose foods that promote health and well-being. She is passionate about empowering and assisting Ixcela members as they develop their unique, gut-healthy lifestyles.

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Interested in learning more about Ixcela? Check out Ixcela’s microbiome test, personalized nutrition and fitness plans, and other tools to help you optimize your health.