I eat energy gels because they’re easy to bring along for training and races and are tried-and-true fueling options. But we all need a little variety in life, right? All gels and no alternatives make Runivore Will a dull boy, especially trail ultras and the Ironman distances that often last 10+ hours and beyond.
Below are a few energy gel substitutes that I’ve used and enjoyed in the past.
Honey – We thank you, honey bees
Honey and energy gels offer similar amounts of carbohydrates. The bee-made sweetness is 80% sugars (mainly glucose and fructose), 18% water, 2% vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and a small amount of protein.
One tablespoon (14.7 ml) of honey provides 17g of carbohydrates and 64 calories. So 1-3 tablespoons per hour should keep you fueled up.
Judging by its nutritional content, the mouth-to-muscle time of honey should be similar to that of energy gels. However, in past experiences, I found that it took longer for my body to feel the surge, so remember to adjust the timing of your fueling plan when using honey.
So how to bring honey without getting all sticky?
- Compact and reusable containers are a quick online search away. Pick the ones that are squeezable and with a good seal.
- Mix honey and water in your bottles and flasks.
- Some brands offer honey in single-serving packs.
Maple Syrup – Oooohhh Canaaadaaa
Maple syrup is 67% sugar (primarily sucrose), 33% water, and has an even more diverse micro-nutrient profile than honey. One tablespoon (14.7 ml) of maple syrup provides about 13g of carbohydrates and 52 calories.
So 1-3 tablespoons per hour provide ample energy. Maple syrup registers lower on the glycemic index compared with most energy gels, so in theory, it should be easier on your gastrointestinal system.
When it comes to sustainability, maple syrup gets an A+ in my book. It’s vegan-friendly and comes from the maple tree, which can continue to produce sap for over 200 years. It’s truly nature’s energy gel.
Nut butter – Good fats, good fuel
Nut butter is a healthy, calorie-packed option for athletes that are fat-adapted, following a low-carb diet or training for lower intensity events.
It has a balanced nutritional profile, providing healthy fats, protein, some carbohydrates as well as a plethora of minerals and vitamins. One tablespoon of almond butter, for example, provides 98 calories, 9g of fat, 3.4g of protein, and 3g of carbohydrates.
Brands have already packaged nut butter into convenient sachets. My one gripe is that nut butter hardens and becomes quite difficult to squeeze out in cold weather conditions.
Here’s a pro-tip: keep nut butter closer to your body in lower temperatures. Your body heat will keep it soft.
Dried fruit – Great for the long haul
Dried mango, berries, dates, and apricots are some of my favorites for going the distance. When I’m power hiking up a huge mountain and have been moving for 20 straight hours, the last thing I want is another energy gel.
Dried fruits are delicious, packed with nutrients, full of energy, and easy to take along – best of four freaking worlds!
However, since they’re solid foods with dietary fiber, more time is required for digestion. My personal suggestions are: eat regularly, a moderate quantity at a time, chew thoroughly, and savor the deliciousness. Yummy food equals a good mood equals fun adventures.
For activities under 3 hours, I believe dried fruits might be too slow-reacting to provide substantial performance benefits.