Ask A Marathon Mommy: Gels and Chews and Beans, Oh My

Sharon is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a background in mental health, substance abuse, and child welfare.

“I tried my hand at being a work at home mom, but in 2009 I decided that being a stay at home mom is what works best for me and my family, at least for now. As my kids like to say, I’m “The Boss” of the family, which includes my husband of 9 years, two daughters (ages 4 and 6), and a giant goldfish named Princess Leia. My girls are beautiful and curious and wild and exhausting, and life is never, ever dull! I love reading, traveling, trying new restaurants, and shopping for bargains. I’m also training to run my first marathon in February 2013.”

Once upon a time, long distance runners ran with nothing but the shirts on their backs. During races, they’d stop at the water stops, take a few sips from a paper cup, and be on their way.

My, how times have changed, at least for recreational runners. Now we run with fancy hydration belts with water bottles and pouches. We have arm bands that carry our smart phones and other necessities. And we wear sport skirts and bras with hidden pockets.

We’re also smarter now, and we know more about the body’s need for fuel during long runs. We know that the body’s blood glucose and glycogen stores will become depleted in as little as 60 minutes of running. When you deplete your stores, your muscles and brain run out of fuel, and you will feel both physically fatigued and mentally drained. No fun! This is commonly known in the running world as “hitting the wall,” and it occurs when your brain and muscles run out of carbs.

So what’s a runner girl to do? Well, for one thing, we need to consume between 30 and 60 grams of carbohydrates for each hour of exercise. This is where the water bottles, pouches, and hidden pockets come in. There are many options to consider.

Sports Drinks (Gatorade, Powerade): These supply a much-needed blend of carbs, water, and sodium. This is my go-to fuel. I fill my water bottle(s) with a sports drink, and I sip it throughout my run. However, the bottles don’t hold enough liquid to sustain me throughout a long run, so I wind up refilling them with water at water stops. This is why I require additional fuel.

Gels (GU, PowerBar Gel, CLIF Shot): When I first started running with my group, there was much talk about “goo.” Goo? Turns out, they were talking about GU, a single-serving packet of highly concentrated, fast-acting carbohydrates. Gels like these are easy to carry, require no chewing, and often come with caffeine as a bonus. Some of them even taste great – like “frosting,” or so I’ve heard. The downside? They can be a little sticky, a little messy, and known to cause unpleasant stomach issues in some runners. Also, they must be taken with lots and lots of water. I must admit, I’m a little afraid of the gels. I really, really don’t want to puke on a run.

Energy Chews (CLIF Shot Blocks, Sport Beans, GU Chomps, PowerBar Energy Blasts): These are bite-sized pieces and pack in the same amount of carbohydrates found in drinks and gels. Because of the smaller caloric content, chews can be easier to digest (and easier on the stomach) than bars or gels. They are less messy, come in tons of flavors, and are fairly tasty, from what I’ve heard. How can something made by Jelly Belly (Sport Beans) taste like anything other than a jelly bean?

Regular Food: So here’s the coolest thing. The drinks, gels, and chews are great. But lots of runners carry plain old food that they find in their pantry or fridge – high-carb, sugary options with low fat and protein, such as dried fruits, Fig Newtons, Twizzlers, or gummy bears. Yum! There was lots of discussion of this on our 12 mile run yesterday. One person runs with a baggie of candy corn; another with Pop Tarts. One experienced runner even described carrying a bagel with peanut butter tucked into her bra!

There are lots of options, and the key is finding what works best for you and your body. New foods/gels/chews/drinks should always been tried on a training run, never during a race. Remember to always drink lots of water with whatever you choose as your source of fuel. And happy trails!

For more info, check out these great sources:

http://www.active.com/women/Articles/How-to-Fuel-on-a-Run.htm
http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-242-301–12826-0,00.html

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