27 Running Fuel Alternatives to Gels (Sensitive Stomach Ideas) (2024)

If you ever chat with ultra runners, you’ll rarely hear them talk about downing 100 gel packets over the course of their 24-48 hours of running. Natural running fuel is their standard.

Yet marathoners eat them like candy, thinking it’s required to keep energy high and avoid the bonk.

Instead of the bonk, they usually wind up in the porta potty or with a stomach ache because we simply aren’t practiced at digesting them or are taking in the same type of fuel repeatedly, which we can’t handle.

Now, now, calm yourself. I’m not saying never to energy gels them or that they’re evil. They were created for a specific reason, to help us with the necessary quick energy on runs!

But while you are working to train your gut to better handle that quick fuel, there are some whole food options that can be a great way to go. This is also more useful for ultra runners, who need variety.

Why is it that we’re so cautious of what we eat before a run and then listen to any old marketing ploy for our long run nutrition?

The British Medical Journal {BMJ} performed a study in 2012 that showed no true studies exist to support the claims of many sports drink/gels. BUT on the flip side we have TONS of data showing that with 30-60 grams of carbs per hour, performance drastically improves.

Tips for Fueling Long Runs with Whole Foods

A few important notes from athletes who have transitioned to natural running fuel, aka whole foods:

  • Eat more frequently, but less volume {every 30-45 min}
  • Consider a mix of whole foods and processed carbs for endurance events to ensure adequate calories and quick carbs to the muscles
  • Always test on training runs before race day
  • Aim for low fiber whole foods
  • Consider using more homemade gels and drinks during higher intensity
  • Start with carbs before the race {i.e. toast, banana, oatmeal}

Long fuel options that don't involve gels! #wholefoods #sportsnutrition Share on X

In addition to what you do during the run, most runners focused on a whole food way of fueling will tell you that what you eat before and after the run are equally important.

These meals are either going to top off your glycogen stores or help to prevent muscle wasting, all going towards quicker recovery.

Ideas for fueling around your runs:

  • Scientifically proven post workout meal ideas
  • Best pre-run meal ideas
  • Anti-inflammatory eating

27 Running Fuel Alternatives to Gels (Sensitive Stomach Ideas) (1)

How Much Fuel Do You Need on Long Runs?

We know there’s a clear benefit to taking in calories, specifically carbohydrates, during endurance events to prevent our body from hitting the dreaded wall.

However, you may not need quite as much as you think during training runs, which is a great way to reduce stomach issues!

This is due to two things:

Burn More Fat

We need to train our body to utilize more fat than carbohydrates, which is a step in training that most runners skip. You can read all about how this base building part of training should work here. This lowers your calorie and carb need during long runs.

Assuming that:

A. You have eaten prior to the run, no fasted long runs!!!
B. Post run you are refueling with a good mix of carbs and protein within 30 minutes

Long runs over 90 minutes, you need to start to practice fueling every 30 to 45 minutes, depending on what fuel your are using. If you don’t practice now, you won’t handle it well on race day and you will struggle to hit that PR.

Lower Intensity Long Runs

On race day, when our heart rate passes the low heart rate max we begin to rely on carbohydrates for fuel. The body can only store so many carbs in the muscles, which means our job is to supply it with quick and easy to use sources of energy.

The second point is what lead to the creation of gels.

High sugar packets that dump immediately in to the body…except they have to go through your gut before it gets in to your blood stream and muscles.

That’s where many runners have issues with major stomach problems, not to mention the mass amounts of blood sugar spikes.

Let’s look at alternatives to energy gels for running that won’t mess with your stomach or contain additional stimulants. BUT if you understand their benefits and want to test them, my best energy gels list contains one’s that seem to work for most runners!

Download my eat before the run guide to help keep your energy high, stomach feeling good and reduce the need for gels >>

How Many Calories Do You Need During a Run?

First question I often get is how many calories do I really need to be consuming?

It’s time to stop thinking in calories and focus on the kind of fuel you’re burning and how you handle sustained energy.

  1. Checkout the LHR method for increasing your fat burning. This reduces the total amount of calories needed during the training session and race. (no this doesn’t mean you burn less calories)
  2. Shorter workouts usually will not require any food during the session. Short could mean up to 13 miles depending upon your intensity and again HR. Most runners can do up to 7-9 miles without consuming calories during the run (see the drink section though). Understand the drawbacks to fasted runs though.
  3. Test for yourself: Do you feel grumpy late in your run? Probably out of carbohydrates. Do you get a lot of stomach issues? Probably too many sugars or hard to digest foods.
  4. Which is all to say stop paying attention to the amount you are burning as a guide to what you take in. Most traditional estimates are based on males, so they are way over estimated for female runners!

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27 Whole Food Fuel Ideas

There are a lot of options, I’m going to range from the easiest for most people to stomach to those that the ultra athletes found helpful. Yes, every day road runners might find the ideas of ultra runners weird, but they absolutely work. There are some great energy gels for runners I’ve tested, so you need to know what works for you.

And bonus points because we’re using whole foods, most are perfect vegan running fuel!

Remember that for each of these ideas, you’re going to need to ingest more than if you were taking in a small gel.

1. Bananas

Freeze dried bananas make this food much more portable. It’s one of the foods that doctors often recommend for sensitive stomachs, so it can make for a great running fuel.

I like the Barnana bites, which no are not cheap. But are still cheaper than gels! They also pack in a good amount for a small serving: 115 calories and 27 grams of carbs.27 Running Fuel Alternatives to Gels (Sensitive Stomach Ideas) (3)

2. Dried Pineapple

Another option that I have long recommended is dried pineapple. Bromelain found in the fruit is a natural digestive enzyme, which means it can help again to stop potential stomach issues.

This is one of the biggest winners from our athletes. They say it always feels good and has gotten them through a lot runs.

Dried pineapple chunks will require almost a 1/3 of a cup to get 140 calories and 35grams of carbs.

So it’s good to combine with other options.

3. Dates

Registered Dietitian Serena Marie often recommends dates to those who want to find a whole food running fuel option. The best way to utilize them is to fill the date in advance with nut butter or coconut oil.

Both are going to turn it in to a longer lasting fuel source and lower the amount you need to eat.

Choose Medjool dates and you’ll need a smaller serving as just two contain 133 calories and 36 grams of carbs.

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4. Dried Apricots

For those of us who tend to be low in iron or ferritin, dried apricots are going to give us an added boost! Sports nutrition manager Lindsey Cotter shared this tip with me many years ago and it’s one I haven’t forgotten.

5 apricots is 110 calories and 25 grams of carbs.

Again, love to combine these with some kind of fat from a nut or nut butter.

5. Raisins or Dried Fruit

Another recommended snack for runners low in iron, this childhood treat is now your long run fuel! The downside here is going to be the volume needed to take in enough calories, so I love going with more of a trail mix option (or with the cereal noted below).

You’ll need to eat 1 small box to get 34 grams of carbs and 110 calories.

6. Nature’s Bakery Fig Bars

You can absolutely grab any fig newton, but Nature’s Bakery is one recommended by my Sports Dietitian friends and I’ve found I like the taste much better.

The bars come pre-packaged and are larger than a newton, so I just break it down and eat it slowly over the course of a few miles.

1 package is 200 calories and 38 grams of carbohydrates from a few different sugar sources, which is part of what can make it easier on the gut to digest.

7. Pretzels

Who doesn’t love something salty after those hot sweaty runs? Why wait until after, just start using them during the running food.

You could bump things up and use nut butter filled pretzels to get that great fat balance. But if you’re like me, that’s not the kind of nut butter I particularly enjoy.

A serving of pretzels is usually about 17 pretzels, which is 110 calories and 27 grams of carbs.

8. Larabar

For those like me who won’t always take the time to make your own energy bars, Larbar is whole foods and a ready to go high carb choice.

They contain things like cashews, dates, apples, and sea salt, depending on the flavor you choose. They really do have it all from Lemon to Chocolate Chip, so you can test out different options to see what keeps you excited to fuel.

One bar is 200 calories with 24 grams of carbs.

9. Applesauce

Serena Marie, RD has recommended this option to our Virtual Run Clubbers non-stop when they say “I just can’t eat during the run.”

It’s a great no chew option during the run that’s going to be low in fiber and really easy on the stomach. So if you swear you’ve tried everything, make sure this is on your list!

A single pouch is 70 calories and 16 grams of carbs.

10. Squeeze Packet of Fruits/Veggies

Similar in nature to applesauce are the tons of baby food or veggie food pouches now available. In fact, this is one that I’ve come to really enjoy on my long trail run days.

I like that I’m getting some nutrients and not just a shot of sugar. Plum Organics makes some good ones that are going to be both fruit and veggies, but of course taste a lot like applesauce.

These small pouches are 60 calories and 16 grams of carbs.27 Running Fuel Alternatives to Gels (Sensitive Stomach Ideas) (5)

11. Juices

Cherry juice in particular can be a fun option as it is also a good anti-inflammatory food. In just a couple of ounces you’ll be getting 70 calories and 15 grams of carbohydrates.

Unlike other juices, the sugar in cherry juice is less likely to cause a quick spike and then drop off.

One runner recommended a combination of cherry juice, pomegrante juice and a Nuun electrolyte tablet! A fun combo to test out.

12. Cereal

Cereal might be one of my favorite foods, so I’m happy for any excuse to eat even more!

Big fan of dumping it in a Ziploc bag with some dried fruit and nuts, so I’m getting a full mix of things while on the go. Because we are looking to pack in quality and more calories this is a key time to look to things like granola.

However, you’ll want to pay attention to the total fiber content in whatever you choose. While many of us aren’t bothered by that fiber, others are going to have some tough times later in the run.

13. Packets of Nut Butter

This became one of my favorite long run fuels over the last few years. I would eat part of a packet along with some dried pineapple and felt amazing! However, you need to know your stomach as some runners don’t feel as great with all the fat.

I believe it works well for me because of the LHR training and utilizing more fat for fuel during those long runs.

Once Again Nut Butter is my preference based on the quality, taste and no added ingredients.

14. Energy Balls

One of my favorite recommendations! I’ve got over 27 energy ball recipe ideas to get you started, but this one option is combining many of the foods on this list.

That makes it a great way to get in just enough fat, carbs and protein to fuel and endurance event. While we absolutely need sugars, on these long easy days we may also find that we feel better with more fat because that is a primary fuel source.

15. Rice Balls

A favorite of ultra running legend, Scott Jurek, onigri, is a stellar way to get in some non-sugary sweet fuel.

As Scott explains: I first saw these seaweed-wrapped rice packets when I asked a Japanese runner to show me what was in his race pack. I’m grateful I did, because white rice is a great food for cooling your body, especially in hot climates like Death Valley. It’s packed with carbohydrates, it’s not too sweet, and it’s soft and easy to digest. A great source for electrolytes and salt (via the seaweed), rice balls have always been a portable pick-me-up in Japan.

16. PB & J

I’m often recommending that runners try breaking energy bars up in to bite size pieces to carry, but this is the next level of effort and in keeping with more whole food options.

Grab a slice of sourdough bread which is easy to digest and even works for many with gluten issues! Pick your favorite nut butter and a jam, you’ve got the perfect fuel.

Of course the downside, is learning how to chew and swallow many of these options. Cut it in to smaller bites, so you can quickly pull it from your pack or decide that this is the option you will stop to walk and eat around the mid-way point.

17. Chia Seeds

Chia gels became a big deal after the release of the book Born to Run. Particularly the homemade creation of a drink version called Chia Iskiate.

Just two tablespoons of chia seeds contain a massive amount of nutrients: 4g protein, 9g fat, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, magnanese, zinc, potassium, B Vitamins.

Here is the famous recipe:

1. Add lemon or lime juice with 1.5 cups water water to a small pan
2. Gently heat (no boiling)
3. Add 1 tbsp Chia seeds and stir
4. Add 1 tbsp maple syrup and stir continuously for a few minutes
5. Place in the fridge to cool

Please test this at home before the run! For all the amazing benefits of chia seeds, the texture is a no go for me when I’m at mile 18 of a long run.

27 Running Fuel Alternatives to Gels (Sensitive Stomach Ideas) (6)

18. Honey Sticks

One study showed that due to its carbohydrate composition (low glycemic index), honey has similar effects to other more standard glucose sources (gels).

If you’d like to make your own gel, consider one of these real foods. Ideally you’d want to mix up your own so that you can add in a little bit of salt to help with sweat loss.

But for ease of use look for honey sticks that are now readily available or checkout Muir energy gels which are a combo of fat and some honey.

19. Maple Syrup

Similar to honey, you won’t get that super fast sugar rush and drop off, which makes this another lasting fuel source. While you can indeed take it straight, I also recommend you look at it as part of a solution.

Which is what makes the energy ball option above so beneficial.

Added benefits to using maple syrup maple syrup is that it contains amino acids, calcium, riboflavin, manganese, zinc, and potassium. All of which could help to prevent muscle cramps along with being a good energy source.

20. Coconut Water

Over the last few years, I discovered that liquid nutrition has worked really well for me. Particularly Tailwind and Gnarly, but if you want to stick to real foods then you could use Coconut Water!

8 oz is 45 calories and 11 grams of carbohydrates, so try to sip it consistently every mile along with your other fuel.

21. Fruit Snacks

If you want to stick to as close to whole foods as possible, then look for something like Annie’s Organic Fruit Snacks. Otherwise the truth is jelly beans and swedish fish are going to give you the same result.

I know many BQ runners who love to fuel their long runs with Swedish fish!

A packet of Annie’s is 90 calories and 19 grams of carbs.

22. Pickles

All those myths about pickle juice helping with cramps are true. And for ultra runners, there’s often a desire to switch away from tons of sweet foods, so pickles or olives can make a great option.

Olives are going to give you that quick blast of fat, while pickles might just satisfy that salt craving.

23. Boiled Potatoes

Checkout this post for great ideas on how to carry and use potatoes as running fuel. I know it sounds crazy to road runners, but this power house food is packed with nutrients and is super easy to digest!

You’ll get 92 cal and 11g of carbs from a half cup.

And with a dash of Himalayan pink sea salt you’ll get even more of the electrolytes you need to prevent muscle cramping.

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24. Boiled Eggs

Admittedly this is not one I’ve been able to stomach, but my Ironman training friends swear by it. Again remember that when we’re doing these long runs, our body can utlize more than just straight sugar for fuel.

So if you’re not a sweets person and want to give this a go, let us all know what you think.

25. Bone Broth

Another for those who like to drink their nutrition is bone broth. This is NOT a high calorie or carbohydrate option.

Instead, this is a good way to stay on top of hydration. It is packed with tons of minerals and electrolytes which can feel really wonderful during super cold race days.

This one I find less practical in terms of carrying it with you and more like something you leave in the car when you’re running loops or that you ask a friend to have for you at an aid station.

26. Ramen Noodles

Again, we’ve moved in to the ultra runner category of foods now. This salty meal that so many of us remember from childhood or college, can work well as a fueling option on long trail runs and endurance events.

27. Pop Tarts

Is it a whole food? Ummmm…is it a food of any kind?? I don’t know, but I do know that many of the top runners I know love to use it for fuel and I can’t argue with that deliciousness.

You can absolutely make healthier version at home!

Now the major downside to whole foods, which much be addressed is that if you’re trying to replicate the carbohydrates in a gel, you need a greater volume.

For example if a gel is 30g of carbohydrates that would be:

  • 1.2 oz dried pineapple
  • 1 Larabar
  • 2 Medjool dates
  • 2 oranges
  • 2 Tbsp raisins

Additionally, your body is going to need to digest the food as well.

So while it can sound wonderful to use nothing but whole foods for fuel, you also need to test it out to see if your body feels ok with extra volume and as I’ve learned if you really need that much.

While much of the original science said take 1 gel packet per 30-45 minutes of running, I’ve never found that my body needed that volume of sugar during a marathon. (see more below on fueling pre and post race).

One way to avoid on the run issues is to fuel appropriately before your run and lessen the need to eat during! Download free guide to pre-run meals.

Natural Gel Options

If you want to try a gel, there are a few options which seem to work better for sensitive stomachs. I have tested out some of these and have gotten great feedback from many of you over the years that these work well (meaning you have more than my word to go on!)

Not in to reading, great, I made a video chatting about this too!

Bonus: Homemade Gel Options

The truth is that gels aren’t all bad and if you can stomach them, they make you feel energized, then go for it. They are one of the easiest ways to get a good mix of carbs in the body while you’re hustling through the race.

I just don’t love them and like the idea of finding natural alternatives to gels. Hence, the homemade versions where you are using whole foods!

How to carry your homemade gels??

Many folks use little ziploc baggies, others use the bottles from a fuel belt or you can buy a gel flask.

A few ideas to get you started:

Hydration Fueling

Along with the food you take in, it’s just as important to keep your hydration on point. This is about more than guzzling water!

I’ve covered in depth how to stay hydrated when running, along with great homemade sports drinks to keep your electrolytes balanced and muscle cramps at bay. But as noted, hydration can actually be part of your fueling strategy!

Not only are you ensuring that your muscle continue to work well because they’re hydrated, but it works as a little brain trick too!

All it takes it the taste of something sweet in your mouth for your brain to believe it’s getting fuel and give you that energy boost. Thus if you’re carrying an electrolyte drink, just taking consistent sips every mile will help with energy as well.

What’s your go to running fuel?

Have you tried using whole foods?

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27 Running Fuel Alternatives to Gels (Sensitive Stomach Ideas) (2024)


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