By Ali Lopez
MRG Contributor

Let’s talk real food fueling.

Sure, GUs and gels and chews are convenient, but wouldn’t you love to be able get the same benefits they give you by using “real food?”

Since I try to eat “unprocessed” in the rest of my life, why should running be different? Some of the ingredient lists can be downright scary! You definitely don’t need to be a food scientist to figure out natural ways to fuel. I’ve experimented with a bunch of different ingredients and come up with a few favorites that really work for me. One of the benefits of using whole food, plant-based sources is that they are easy to digest and are packed with naturally occurring vitamins, minerals and electrolytes which help your muscles function properly during the demands of running.

Two of my favorite natural fuels are honey and dates. I discovered honey one time when I was staying at a hotel and wanted to head out for a run but forgot to bring any gel packets, and noticed the little honey packets next to the tea. Brilliant! The little pouches worked great. So then I started experimenting with other ways to fuel with honey. I can add a few tablespoons of honey to my water bottle and then fill it up with water. Honey contains not only sodium and potassium but also fructose and glucose—the same mix of sugars you’ll find in most sports drinks. And one tablespoon of honey contains 17 grams of carbohydrates. Best of all, it doesn’t contain any added preservatives, absorbs quickly into your system and is cheaper than buying lots of gels.

MRG-HoneyAliHere is a really basic “honey based DIY energy gel”:
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon cocoa/cacao powder
Pinch of sea salt
Mix together and store in snack size Ziploc bags or travel size shampoo bottle.
I also love to use dates as running fuel. They are a great substitute for the “chews” if you prefer the chewing to the “GU-ing.” With about 70 calories and 20 grams of carbohydrate per Medjool date (those are the big ones), they make a perfect swap for a gel (typically 90 calories and 25 grams of carbs). I pop a few in a small plastic bag or wrap in plastic wrap and use in place of a gel. They are rich in potassium, but don’t contain any sodium, so for longer runs make sure to get some sodium or salt. One fun and tasty way to do this is to split open the dates and stuff some nut butter inside!

MRG-CoconutOilDatesAnother way is to try this “date-based DIY energy gel”:

8 pitted dates (Medjool are my favorite), soaked at least a few hours in warm water
1 teaspoon unrefined coconut oil*
1 tablespoon REAL maple syrup**
Pinch of sea salt
optional flavors: cocoa powder, cinnamon, lemon, orange or grapefruit juice.

Mix these all in a food processor and process until smooth. Store in snack size Ziploc bags or travel size shampoo bottles.

*Coconut oil is a great fat to add to your fueling strategies as it is a medium-chain fatty acid which is metabolized in the liver and then quickly converted to energy from our cells, which allows us to use the fat immediately for fuel.

**Maple syrup contains potassium, manganese and zinc. It is also low on the glycemic index, which means it slowly releases glucose into your bloodstream, keeping you going for longer periods.

Another way to fuel with dates is to make a copycat version of my favorite energy bar — Larabars. I love Larabars because the ingredient list is short and real. The main ingredient is dates. I have played around with a few of my favorite flavors and they are pretty delicious and easy to make. All you need is a food processor.

MRG-CherryAliHere is my quick and easy recipe for the Cherry Pie version:
1 cup almonds, roasted or not
1 cup pitted dates (medjool preferably)*
1 cup dried cherries
pinch of sea salt
*(If the fruit is really tough, soak it in warm water for a few minutes, then drain and use)

Combine the ingredients in a food processor and pulse for about a minute until it comes together. I like to take the mixture and roll it tightly into a log on a piece of plastic wrap, then pop it in the freezer for about an hour. When it is frozen take it out, unwrap, and slice into little rounds. Then you can keep them in the fridge or freezer and pop a few before, during or after a run. You can also form them into bars if you like by pressing the mixture into a plastic or parchment lined 8X8 baking dish and cut into bars or squares of whatever size you like.

Sometimes on a long run I just can’t deal with another sweet thing and really need some salty goodness. Here is where potatoes come in. What!? Yup. Salted boiled potatoes or sweet potatoes are a great source of carbs (1 small potato = 30 grams) and a great source of sodium and potassium. You can carry them in little snack bags diced or mashed like a salty gel!

And how about making your own sports drink? Have you read some of the labels out there? Making your own is so easy and you can make as much or as little as you want, no weird ingredients, and it’s a lot cheaper than the stuff on the shelf. And did I mention that it tastes way better!

The key is to get a good mix of hydration and electrolytes. This homemade energy drink provides a great mix of carbs to fuel your muscles and electrolytes (sodium and potassium) to help replace what your body loses through sweat. Give it a try!

1 quart of warm water (or use coconut water, green or herbal tea)
1/4 cup or more of unsweetened juice (orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, cranberry, tart cherry)
1/4 tsp. fine Himalayan sea salt (has great trace minerals)
1-2 TBSP sweetener (optional) I like maple syrup, honey or agave
Combine all ingredients and mix until sweetener and salt have dissolved. You can use a blender, a shaker bottle, or just mix it in a pitcher. Chill and enjoy!

Overall, the key to fueling naturally during a long run is to experiment and find what works for your body. And always make sure you try new fuel types during shorter runs, anything less than an hour. That way, you can try out the new fuel about halfway through and see how your body reacts without having to suffer through a long run.

Have a fueling question for Ali? Post it below in the comments section or email MRG with your healthy-eating questions at michiganrunnergirl [at] gmail [dot] com 

Ali will answer your questions in upcoming columns here on MRG. You can read her post about the Power of Smoothies, here »  She’s also written about superfoods and shares a great recipe for kale salad here »


Ali Lopez is a northern Michigan runner, chef and health coach. You can learn more about her at her web site Healthy Chef Ali. She’s also on Facebook here »

You can listen to a conversation about running and eating between Ali and Heather on a recent MRG podcast episode here »

Ali will be sharing her culinary expertise at the Michigan Runner Girl Weekend April 22-24 at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa. Learn more about this awesome weekend up north and get registered by clicking here »

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