One of the great ironies in distance running is the fact that we do everything we can to take care of our bodies during the 23-or-so hours a day we aren’t out running, but on the actual run, we fuel with sugary, sticky, highly-processed energy gels or chews instead of wholesome, natural foods.
Energy gels for marathoners might feel like a necessity, an inextricable partnership, or the best and only long run or race nutrition, but the reality is that there are many whole food alternatives to gels for runners.
Choosing natural or real food alternatives to gels and chews is a healthier way to provide your body with the simple carbohydrates you need to keep your energy levels stable and prevent glycogen depletion and bonking in a marathon or long-distance race.
Healthier, whole food alternatives to gels are free from chemicals, preservatives, refined sugars, artificial colors and flavors, and high-fructose corn syrup. Many runners also find them more palatable and appealing, as gels can be gloopy, sticky, and slimy.
If you’re interested in cleaning up your diet and optimizing your marathon fueling strategy for performance and overall health, keep reading for our list of the best real food alternatives to gels for runners.
Dried dates are one of the most popular whole food alternatives to gels and chews. Trusted by marathoners and ultramarathoners alike, dates are packed with easily-digestible simple carbohydrates from natural sugar.
Medjool dates are particularly juicy and rich. Just two dried Medjool dates contain about 130 calories and 35 grams of carbohydrates, which is slightly more than most energy gels. They also have some potassium, an important electrolyte to optimize your hydration levels.
#2: Craisins or Raisins
Another popular dried fruit used as a substitute for processed energy gels is raisins. In fact, a study found that raisins are indeed an effective real food alternative to gels.
You can either toss raisins in a ziplock bag or buy the mini snack boxes and dose them out that way. One mini box of raisins has about 124 calories and 33 grams of carbs. Raisins are also a good source of iron.
Craisins are a tasty real food alternative to energy gels for runners who like something a little more tart and tangy.
#3: Dried Fruit
Dried pineapple, apricots, apples, and cherries are also popular real foot alternatives to gels.
Dried pineapple is an especially good option for something energy-dense and high in carbohydrates.
Pineapple is also rich in digestive enzymes. Many marathoners and ultramarathon runners find that dried pineapple is processed through the stomach better instead of sitting around like a heavy blob as an energy gel does.
Dried pineapple chunks or tidbits also have a nice toothsome texture that many runners find satisfying while on a long run.
Dried apricots are lower in sugar and calories than pineapple, but are packed with iron. They have about 7.5 mg of iron per cup, or nearly the daily value for most men and about 42% for women.
#4: Fig Newtons
Fig Newtons or fig cookies are a carbohydrate-dense snack that works great as a real food alternative to energy gels.
They are easy to eat on the run and two small cookies provide nearly 200 calories and 40 grams of carbohydrates. They are a compact, quick way to top off glycogen stores and fuel your body on long runs.
These days, they come in a variety of flavors, allowing you to find something palatable no matter what your preferences are.
Fig cookies are also low in fat, so they won’t sit around forever in your stomach while you run.
If you’re a heavy sweater, one of the best real food alternatives to gels is mini pretzels. As long as you have water or a good sports drink to wash them down with, pretzels can be a great source of carbohydrates.
The sodium will help encourage drinking and will replace what is lost in sweat.
You can buy mini pretzels, pretzel nuggets, or even large hard pretzels and break them up. Carry them in a small ziplock bag.
Pretzels are a little lighter in calories and carbs than some of the other real food alternatives to gels. Depending on the brand and size, about 19 mini pretzels contain 110 calories and 23 grams of carbohydrates.
A more energy-dense option to regular pretzels is honey wheat pretzels. Some runners also find the slightly sweet taste more appealing mid-run.
#6: Bagel Chips or Pita Chips
Bagel chips and pita chips are a compact way to get a good dose of carbohydrates while on a run.
Containing even more calories and carbohydrates than pretzels, bagel chips, and pita chips are perfect real food alternatives to gels for runners who like something savory rather than sweet.
One ounce of bagel chips provides about 130 calories. They contain less sugar than an energy gel or dried fruit, so the sugar won’t enter your bloodstream as rapidly, but the energy should be stable and sustained.
#7: Applesauce Squeeze Pouches
Applesauce makes an excellent real food alternative to energy gels. It has a similar wet consistency but is made with real fruit. Each applesauce pouch usually contains about 20-30 grams of carbs, depending on the size.
For the healthiest option, look for pure applesauce made with no added sugars or other ingredients (other than cinnamon). GoGo Squeez is a good option.
Since the texture is loose, applesauce pouches are easy to ingest and swallow while you’re running, and the top is designed to be sucked, making it one of the most feasible and convenient whole food alternatives to gels.
#8: Baby Food Pouches
It may sound weird, but baby food pouches are an ideal real food alternative to energy gels for runners. Like applesauce pouches, they are convenient and conducive to carrying and eating while running.
You can buy mixed veggie and fruit snacks or even get baby meals with puréed oatmeal or barley for added carbohydrates.
The variety of flavors and blends is diverse, making it possible to customize your run fueling strategy based on your taste preferences and the time of day you run.
For example, on a morning long run, you might enjoy a baby food pouch that’s a blend of beets, blueberries, and bananas—more of a breakfast-like option—whereas on a long run after work, you might prefer something like carrots and sweet potatoes.
#9: Dry Cereal
Dry cereal doesn’t work well for all runners because it’s typically not as calorie-dense as an energy gel or energy chews, depending on the type of cereal you choose.
However, if your calorie needs aren’t particularly high, or you’re running with a pack so extra space isn’t at as much of a premium, cereal can be a viable real food alternative to energy gels.
To get the biggest bang per volume, choose granola or cluster cereals, or dense cereals like Grape Nuts. One-half cup of Grape Nuts has an impressive 47 grams of carbohydrates.
Most runners are well aware that bananas make an ideal pre-run snack, as they are packed with carbohydrates and contain electrolytes like potassium and magnesium.
However, if you are scratching your head wondering how you can possibly take a banana with you while you run, you’re not alone.
Most likely, you can’t expect to eat a bruise-free banana (perhaps unless you’re running an ultramarathon in the trails with a roomy pack), but if you’re flexible on the appearance of your run fuel, you can absolutely make a banana work.
Either peel and pre-mash a banana in a ziplock bag squeeze it out as you run like an applesauce pouch or put it in the ziplock as is and just expect it to be somewhat mashed when it’s time to fuel up mid-run.
One medium banana contains about 120 calories and 30 grams of carbs, so it’s a nearly identical match to many energy gels.
#11: Honey Packets
Honey straws or honey packets are one of the best alternatives to gels for runners looking for a nearly identical product made of real food instead of processed ingredients.
You’ll get the same type of quick-acting simple sugars, in a natural blend of fructose and glucose. Honey also contains potassium, and if you buy unfiltered and unpasteurized honey, you’ll also get antioxidants.
Honey digests very quickly and packets or straws are mess-free and convenient alternatives to gels.
We love Savannah Bee Company Honey Straws, which contain 100% pure Acacia Honey. These delicious straws are free from artificial colors, flavors, and unhealthy sugars and are BPA-free.
For honey packets, we like Nature Nate’s Raw and Unfiltered Honey Minis Packets. The honey is unpasteurized so the pollen is intact.
#12: Maple Syrup Packets
Like honey, maple syrup packets are a similar real food alternative to gels.
For example, UnTapped Pure Maple Syrup Packets are designed to be athletic fuel on the go. They contain 100 calories and 25 grams of sugar from 100% maple syrup.
#13: Potatoes or Sweet Potatoes
Though it might sound weird, boiled or baked potatoes peeled and salted make an excellent real food alternative to energy gels, according to research. Sweet potatoes also work really well.
You’ll get about 30 grams of carbohydrates, along with potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin A.
As with bananas, pack them in ziplock bags, either pre-mashed or whole, and squeeze them out as you run.
#14: Chia Squeeze Pouches
Chia seeds can also be an effective real food alternative to energy gels. In fact, studies have demonstrated that chia seed gels can indeed provide equally effective performance benefits to standard processed energy gels.
Huma Chia Energy Gels are a branded option for runners looking for natural alternatives to gels. They are made with puréed fruit, chia seeds, and brown rice syrup.
The chia seeds help stabilize blood sugar, and the ratio of quick- to long-acting carbs is thoughtfully engineered to be 2:1. One natural energy gel contains 100 calories and about 15 grams of sugar (23 grams of carbohydrates).
#15: Natural Energy Bars
If you’re more of an energy bar fan and like something more toothsome than a gel, a good real food alternative is a natural energy bar made with real food ingredients.
For example, Kate’s Real Food Organic Energy Bars are made from real, whole-food ingredients like nut butters, seeds, organic honey, and fruit. All bars are USDA-certified organic, vegan, non-GMO, gluten-free, soy-free, and natural.
The real food energy bars have a pleasantly chewy texture and a sweetness that feels indulgent even though they only have 130 calories. Each bar contains about 7 grams of fat, 13 grams of carbohydrates, and 3 grams of protein and fiber.
Kate’s Real Food Bars come in tasting flavors like Dark Chocolate Cherry Almond, Mango Coconut, Dark Chocolate Mint, and Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate.
#16: Homemade Energy Bars
Rather than buy something processed, make your own healthy, natural energy balls or bites. Homemade energy balls make a great substitute for sugar-laden, conventional energy bars or energy gels. Plus, you can personalize your recipes and get creative with your flavors and mix-ins to keep things fun!
For an easy base to start with, combine whole rolled oats, your favorite nut butter, shredded unsweetened coconut, chopped nuts, and dates or other dried fruit.
Roll the mix into small balls and then coat them in more coconut, cinnamon sugar, or a sprinkle of sea salt.
#17: Nut Butter Squeeze Packets
If you’re running at a lower intensity, training for an epic ultramarathon, or following a low-carb diet like paleo or keep, you’ll actually want to fuel more with fat rather than carbohydrates.
In these cases, instead of a glucose- or fructose-laden energy gel, opt for something like a nut butter packet.
Whether butter, almond butter, or something in between, nut butter packets are calorie-dense real food alternatives for runners looking for something higher in protein and fat.
We love Justin’s Cinnamon Almond Butter Squeeze Packs. One small pack has a very satiating 200 calories, including 6 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, and 4 grams of sugar. They taste incredible and will keep your energy levels stable for miles.
#18: Bread or Tortilla With Nut Butter and Jam
One of the better whole food alternatives to gels is a simple sandwich with either nut butter and jam, nut butter and honey, or jam alone.
You can take a single slice of whole-grain bread (oat bread, potato bread, multigrain bread, or whole wheat bread work well). Slather it with peanut butter or your favorite nut butter, spread on a thin layer of jam or honey, and then fold it in half.
This whole food energy gel substitute provides a good balance of quick-acting simple carbs, slower-acting healthy fats, and a little protein.
It’s easy to carry and eat out of a ziplock bag, or you can use a wheat tortilla and make a roll-up instead.
If you have a sensitive stomach, choose lower-fiber bread, and you can skip the nut butter if you want just carbohydrates in your fueling strategy.
So if you want to clean up your fueling, you now have plenty of alternatives to gels to try out on your next big run. For more on running nutrition in general, check out our runner’s nutrition guide!