Natural Alternatives to Energy Gels
Written By: Laura Tilt
Energy gels are a convenient way to put the breaks on fatigue, but they can be expensive. The good news is that real-food alternatives work just as well. Dietitian Laura Tilt tells us why.
Power to the carbs
When running for long periods or at high intensity, your body relies on carbohydrate for energy. Because we can only store limited amounts of carbohydrate in our muscles and liver, carb levels can get depleted quite quickly, triggering fatigue and jelly legs.
One way to prevent this is to consume some carbohydrate during longer runs - around 30 - 60 grams per hour will top up your energy levels and keep you moving for longer. Although energy gels are convenient, real food alternatives can be just as effective.
Real food fuel
1 - Bananas
A single large banana provides a handily packaged 30 grams of carbohydrate, making it a good contender for fueling endurance exercise. In a 2012 study from Appalachian State University researchers tested the effects of bananas versus isotonic sports drinks on cycling performance. Results showed both the bananas and sports drinks resulted in similar performance with neither outperforming the other.
Bananas contain balanced amounts of fructose and glucose, which means they’re less likely to trigger tummy upset that some high fructose gels and drinks can provoke. They also score low to medium on the glycemic index scale, which means they encourage a sustained release of energy.
Per large banana: 120 calories, 30 grams of carbohydrate
2 - Raisins
Nicknamed natures candy, raisins are another effective way of keeping your carbohydrate levels topped up during long runs. In a study carried out by the University of California’s Sports Performance Laboratory, scientists tested the effective of raisins vs. sports chews in a group of endurance runners.
In the study, 11 male runners completed three trials consisting of an 80 minute run, followed by a 5k time trial during which they consumed either water, raisins or sports chews. Results showed no difference in performance between the raisins and sports chews and interestingly, neither chews nor raisins resulted in any digestive discomfort.
Per 45g raisins (a large handful, or 2 tablespoons), 130 calories, 30 grams of carbohydrate
3 - Rice Cakes
After working with endurance athletes who struggled to consume large volumes of gels and bars during races, sports scientist Allen Lim tasked himself with finding an effective real food alternative that wouldn’t cause digestive discomfort. He came up with savoury rice cakes - a mixture of cooked rice bound with small amounts of bacon, egg to hold the mixture and improve taste.
Popular with triathletes, each rice cake is individually wrapped into a matchbox-sized package providing around 200 calories and 30 grams of carbohydrate, making them a great savoury alterative to gels and bars.
Bacon and Egg Rice Cakes
- 2 cups uncooked medium-grain "sticky" rice
- 3 cups water
- 200 grams bacon
- 4 eggs
- 2 tablespoons low-salt soy sauce
- Pinch brown sugar
- Salt and grated Parmesan (optional)
- Combine rice and water in a rice cooker.
- While rice is cooking, chop up bacon before frying, then fry in a medium sautÃ© pan. When crispy, drain off fat and soak up excess fat with paper towels.
- Beat the eggs in a small bowl and then scramble on high heat in the sautÃ© pan. Don’t worry about overcooking the eggs as they’ll break up easily when mixed with the rice.
- In a large bowl or in the rice cooker bowl, combine the cooked rice, bacon, and scrambled eggs. Add liquid amino acids or soy sauce and sugar to taste. After mixing, press into an 8- or 9-inch square baking pan to about 1 ½-inch thickness. Top with more brown sugar, salt to taste, and grated Parmesan, if desired. Leave to cool.
- Cut and wrap individual cakes. Makes about 10 rice cakes.
Per rice cake 225 calories, 30 grams of carbohydrate.
Laura Tilt is a registered Dietitian, specialising in weight loss and mindful eating, sports nutrition and the low FODMAP diet for IBS.