Whether you’re a marathoner, triathlete, gravel-grinder, or enjoy any other endurance sport, you’ve probably had more than your share of gels, chews, and other sports fueling products.
We’ve all swapped “gel horror stories” of nasty-tasting gels that we choked down at mile 20 just to get to the finish line. And most endurance athletes eventually find that one chew or gel they swear by.
Don’t get me wrong, gels, chews, bars, and other fueling products are certainly valuable tools for most endurance athletes. But they do have their downsides.
Cost: Most fueling products are expensive! The cost of a quality gel can range from $1.60 to $4.50 per gel (I’m looking at you, Maurten).
Availability: Any athlete that swears by one specific product knows the gut-wrenching terror of not being able to find enough before an upcoming race. Last summer, many athletes were scrambling when Science In Sport experienced some disruption in their US distribution. While SiS seems to have resolved their issue, many athletes started diversifing their fueling arsenal in the event of a future shortage.
Travel difficulties: Speaking of availability, have you ever tried flying with an IRONMAN distance worth of fuel? That’s a lot of gel to explain to a TSA agent (not to mention the valuable suitcase real estate). But there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to purchase the fuel your gut tolerates best when you get to your race destination. So, most of us athletes begrudgingly (and nervously) travel with our powders, gels, and chews, praying it all arrives safely.
Of course, our bodies need electrolytes and glycogen, especially when we’re fueling longer workouts of more than 90 minutes.
Commercial products like gels, blocks, and sports drinks are engineered for our bodies to absorb easily during long efforts. But there are many products available at your regular grocery store that offer similar nutrients at a much lower price (and are more readily available).
2 Main Ingredients for Endurance Athletes Fuel
There are two main ingredients to focus on when fueling for endurance sports:
Hydration and replacing electrolytes is equally important, but we’re going to focus on replacing the carbs and sugars with grocery-store options this time.
Many studies indicate that athletes need between 30 and 60g per hour of carbohydrates to fuel a long run. If you’re going really long (marathons, ultras, Ironman, etc.), that number can jump to 90g per hour of carbohydrates to replenish what you’re burning.
Sugars are essential for endurance athletes to keep going. When you eat sugar, your body breaks it down into glucose and fructose, which can be used for immediate energy. Unfortunately, eating straight sugar can be rough on your stomach, but there are some easy solutions to be found in any grocery store.
9 Grocery Store Fueling Options for Endurance Athletes
Now that we know what we’re looking for, let’s explore some easy, accessible, and more affordable grocery store fueling options we can get almost anywhere!
There are also many recipes on the internet for making your own fuel from scratch, but let’s see what we can find in our local grocery store that doesn’t require cooking.
1. White bread with jam or honey
You can get white bread and honey, jam, or jelly at almost any grocery store or gas station. One piece of bread with about 2 TBSP of jelly or honey is about 45 grams of carbs for just a few cents!
If you want to get really fancy, you can opt for an Uncrustable pre-packaged PB&J. If you go the Uncrustable route, be mindful of how your body might respond to the protein in the peanut butter.
2. Applesauce squeeze packets or baby food
You read that right; don’t turn your nose up at your toddler’s squeeze pouches! Those “fruit mush in a tube” are packed with sugars and carbs. And they might have the same consistency as your favorite gel!
While you’re at it, wander down the baby food and snack food aisles in your local grocery store. You’ll find lots of portable, squeezable containers of mashed-up fruits (just skip the pea puree… trust me). You likely won’t save much money going this route, but it is very readily available at most grocery stores, and most baby foods have very few (and easily digestible) ingredients.
3. Pop Tarts and Rice Crispy Treats
Remember, we’re looking for cost-effective, readily available, portable, and easy-to-digest foods you can stick in your jersey pocket. Pop Tarts and Rice Crispy Treats are basically flavored sugar and carbs. They make a very affordable replacement for your favorite energy bar. Plus, Pop Tarts come in all kinds of flavors–and you can find “Pop Tart Bites” now, too!
4. Sugary Cereal
You can practically inhale the sugar and carbs just walking down the cereal aisle at the grocery store! There are loads of sugary, low-fiber cereals on the market that would make a great fueling option for endurance athletes. For example, 1 cup of Fruit Loops has 27 grams of carbohydrates. Some sugary cereals even come in “jumbo snack” bags designed to be eaten on the go. For just $5 for a box of 12 packs, that’s a great bang for your fueling buck!
5. Pretzels or crackers
You’ve probably noticed that many triathlons, bike races, and running events have pretzels, crackers, and chips at aid stations. They’re cheap and effective sources of carbohydrates and sodium.
25 mini pretzels give you about 30 grams of carbohydrates. If you’re an athlete who prefers salty over sweet, wander down your snack aisle and grab some pretzels!
This is one strategy that might require some testing to be sure your digestive system will cooperate. Some athletes struggle with crackers and chips. Simple is better, so look for options with fewer ingredients.
If you’re looking for a more natural grocery store option, this one’s for you! Just two Medjool dates are packed with 35 grams of carbohydrates and are very low volume. Some athletes even roll them in a little sugar for an extra boost.
While dates aren’t the most cost-effective grocery store option, they’re usually cheaper than a serving of gels or chews. Most stores carry dates, and they’re very portable, too.
7. Syrup or honey packets
Did you know you can buy single-serving syrup and honey packets online and at some grocery stores? Syrup and honey are pure, natural sugar, making them perfect fuel for endurance athletes. And a single syrup packet costs just about 0.50 cents!
Thanks to Amazon, you can buy just about anything in bulk, but if you’re caught on the road, and you need some simple sugars for your next workout, consider stopping by the grocery store or a local breakfast joint to pick up some syrup or honey packets.
Bonus: Many athletes also swear by mustard packets to avoid muscle cramps!
This one might seem painfully obvious, but nature gave us a gloriously individually-wrapped fruit with loads of sugars, carbs, and potassium. Most grocery stores and gas stations sell bananas at various stages of ripening (so you can pick your favorite stage). You can even drizzle your honey packet over the banana for some extra pazazz.
Dried banana chips are more portable and lightweight if space is a limiting factor.
Gummy worms, jelly beans, Skittles, Twizzlers… the candy aisle of any store is overflowing with sugar and carbohydrates in almost any flavor, shape, and size. The advantage of candy is it often comes in small bites, so you can experiment to see how many “pieces” you should consume per hour of training or racing–a lot like sports blocks or chews!
3 Things To Consider…
There are plenty of high-carb, high-sugar fueling options available at gas stations or grocery stores. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you experiment:
Nothing new on race day: Remember this mantra of every endurance athlete–nothing new on race day. Avoid trying ANY new nutrition strategy or product on race day… you never know how your digestive system will respond. (Most seasoned athletes have horror stories of their own.)
Look for the simplest list of ingredients: when choosing fueling options from the grocery store, simple is best to avoid GI distress.
Lean toward low-fat or fat-free: Especially when you’re looking at candy options, bars like Clif, Snickers, or Twix get complicated because a portion of the calories come from fat, not carbs. This can be difficult for your body to process, and you’ll have to consume more calories to get the same number of carbohydrates. Higher fat content can be fine for endurance events where the average intensity remains lower. But many athletes tend to experience GI issues with foods that are higher in protein and fat when the intensity levels go up.
Coach Gregg Edelstein is a certified USA Triathlon Level 1 Coach, an IRONMAN University Certified Coach, and a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach based in the greater Boston area. Gregg offers his athletes insight on the principles of exercise, nutrition, sports psychology, and injury prevention, working to make them well-rounded and engaged athletes that share his passion for sport. Gregg can be reached at Greg@TeamMPI.com