If you’re a distance runner, a trail junkie, a triathlete, or any other kind of endurance athlete, you’re probably pretty used to mapping out your meals. You know your favorite superfoods, your favorite cheat day foods, and everything in between. If you’re newer to the endurance community, fret not — you’ll definitely get the hang of it, and there are plenty of resources to guide you. One item that might be a bit harder to pin down is what to eat mid-workout. There are plenty of energy gels and chews out there that are made to give you a boost of energy, but they’re often made from tapioca syrup and dried cane syrup. If you’re interested in eating clean, you’d be far better off making your own.
The Problem With Store-Bought Energy Gels
I’m a swimmer, turned distance runner, turned doing-this-for-my-mental-
While I’m not currently at the point of needing mid-run fuel, I can certainly sympathize. During my hardcore running days, I definitely relied on gels to get me through the longer training peaks. I didn’t particularly like them but ate them anyways because I didn’t know what else to eat. My belly would bloat painfully by the time I got to the end of the trail, but I figured it was just part of the running life.
Maybe that sounds familiar to you. You don’t really like the gels, but pack them anyways because it’s easier than trying to stuff down a peanut butter sandwich halfway through that 18-miler. A quick glance at any number of endurance athlete forums reveals that many athletes suffer from cramps, bloating, and, er, the runs — after consuming gels, chews, and similar products. Energy gels are formulated for fast absorption, basically tricking your body into a blood sugar spike. But since your body isn’t stupid; it compensates by either slowing down digestion as much as possible, or speeding it up. Fuel gets trapped in your belly and can’t empty out into the small intestine, and boom, you’re bloated. If your body has the opposite reaction, your gut gets overwhelmed by the sugar rush and feels the need to empty itself ASAP.
Even if energy gels don’t bother your stomach, there’s still a certain environmental concern. How many times have you been on the trail and (infuriatingly) come across someone’s discarded gel packet? Or slipped on one during a race? Over 400,000 gels get handed out during the world’s most popular fall marathon. Those little gel packets are notoriously difficult to recycle. Certain energy gel companies offer drop off points for empty packages, usually at running retailers. These spots are hardly convenient or accessible — I would have to drive over three and a half hours to my nearest recycling location. Supposing I did live nearby, I doubt I would remember to stock up all my used gel packets and then bring them to the store next time I needed new laces. Case in point: I bring my canvas bags to the grocery store, but it took me a while before I truly got into the habit.
Would a eat an energy gel if I was about to hit the wall mid-race? Probably. Would I prefer to make my own out of simple ingredients? Absolutely.
And it’s really easy to do. I came up with a recipe for DIY-energy chews a few years back, but I haven’t touched it in awhile. I decided to pull it back out this spring and re-vamp it. I cut out an unnecessary ingredient, tinkered with the cooking time, and ended up with an easy-to-eat, easy-to-digest, energy chew.
My Homemade Energy Gels are not as sweet as the kind that you’d grab off the shelf of the GNC, but I’d consider that a plus. I always found gels far too honeyed. When they are very fresh — the first day or two after they’re made — the texture is admittedly sticky, similar to the store-bought kind. You should store these in the fridge or freezer, and you’ll notice that they’re a lot less gooey after a few days.
The ingredients to make your own energy gels are simple and thus easy for your body to process. All you need to make these are dates, frozen fruit, and sweet rice flour (mochiko flour — white box, blue star, found in the Asian aisle at the grocery store). They still have enough sugar and carbs in them to sustain you, but they won’t cause bonking or bloating.
The frozen fruit and dates were automatic choices; both contain pure, unadulterated sources of sugar. Your body is well-rehearsed in breaking them down (in contrast to the processed syrups found in commercial energy gels.) The sweet rice flour required a bit more thought and research: I originally attempted to make these on with only dates and fruit, the result which I had to scour off a baking pan. I next thought of agar, but I knew it wouldn’t provide the proper consistency. Sweet rice flour, which is used in making mochi candy, provides the firm-yet-easily-chewable texture required. Sweet rice flour also adds calorie content to the gels, which is exactly what you want when you’re in the middle of a blistering workout.
My husband was able to eat them both on runs and bike workouts without even the smallest stomach complaint. I’ll definitely be whipping up a batch for his race this summer, and for every workout until then. Click here to learn how to make your own energy gels out of natural ingredients.
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Lead image source: Homemade Energy Gels