Sugar-free Alternatives to Energy Gels


I’ve been running half-marathons for decades, and, like many runners, I always used GU, along with a variety of gummy and jelly beans, for fuel during my long runs. When I quit sugar, I was looking for alternatives. Problem was: GU without sugar would taste like… eww.

But I knew there must be options. So, the first thing I did was find out exactly how much energy I needed. And the answer was: Not nearly as much as I thought. According to this triathlon coach, “Most runners need 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates for every hour that they are running over 75 minutes.” Oops! I’d been getting way more than that!

The purpose of fueling is to replace your glycogen stores – your available quick-energy supply. When you run out, that’s when you “hit the wall,” because, although your body can create more glycogen from stored fat, the conversion takes time. Replenishing with foods that turn to quick energy is helpful.

So, yes, it’s good to replace your glycogen stores during long runs. But you certainly don’t need to GU crazy. In fact, energy gels might even have some hidden risks. According to Dr. Jack Wolfson, D.O., energy gels can do more harm than good. That’s because frequent use of gels makes your body dependent on them, rather than burning your own body fat. Also, the gels are full of fructose, which can make you sick by causing gut flora imbalances — and even damage your liver. For a more complete list of why fructose is harmful, check out 10 Reasons why Fructose is Bad, from Paleoleap.

So how do I get the fuel I need?

Fortunately, there are many great natural alternatives to energy gels:

  • Squeeze packet of fruits/veggies (like Plum Organics and Happy Baby)

  • Pretzels

  • Fritos — dip size

  • Cliff energy bars (which are sweetened with brown rice syrup)

  • Lara Bars and RX bars (sweetened with dates)

  • Packet of nut butter (Rx makes a great one now! It has 1/2 date and egg whites in it as well).

  • Boiled potatoes with salt

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Almonds

Test and tweak.

Every runner is different and has different needs. See what works and what doesn’t. Then stick to a routine once you have it down. This applies to long runs, as well as pre- and post-race nutrition.

After all, it’s never too early to start preparing for your next race.

Christy CarrenoComment