What real foods are good to eat on trail runs?

A big shout-out to these trail running superstars for raising the questions on endurance trail running real foods on our socials Instagram & Facebook

shona_barrett Intel on ‘real food’ that survives being squished in a pack, is nutritious, to fuel a day on the trails without gels! Bonus for any ideas how to get a good caffeine hit 😁

jay_l_baker I second Shona 👏 nutrition for long runs that does not include 10 gels! 😏

Tony O’Connell Whole foods to eat while running, and foods to avoid on the trails

INTRO

Oh what a simple yet complicated subject. Urgh, ok we get it “Eat what works for you”. This is great when you know what that is. However, the journey to finding what works for you can be a long and eventful one, full of plenty of impromptu toilet breaks, bonked out legs, trauma and race day tears. Then once you think you’ve nailed it, the next exact same plan fails you. So we’ve gone on the hunt for information to help you find what works for you and options to change it up if things aren’t working for you. We’ve spoken to ultra trail endurance legends Lucy Bartholomew & Scotty Hawker, expert nutritionist Matthew Kadey and reviewed all the hardest hit google “real endurance food” pages. We’ve combined this with our knowledge of trail running and the specific challenges faced with carrying and consuming real food on the move to hopefully help you achieve endurance trail running real food fuelling success.

There’s plenty of professional recommendations around real food fuelling for endurance sports and there’s no shortage of information backed by science. We’ve mentioned some key takeaways from the front pages of Google search “real food endurance fuelling”. These sites most commonly recommended similar real food types which we have dropped into the comparison table food rating chart below.

What is real food?

DITCH THE GEL: 7 REAL FOOD ENDURANCE FUEL ALTERNATIVESWhat is Real foods- EAT REAL FOOD WHILE RACING & TRAINING.

And by real, I don’t necessarily mean “whole” or unprocessed. Rather, traditional foods that are not marketed as an endurance specific fuel.  While many of these products may boast performance enhancing claims, they are certainly not necessary for success as a runner.  If the gels DO work for you, then by all means continue to use them. But…real foods can be equally as effective in fueling your long run.

Jumpshot on our Tallarook tour

THE TRAIL RUNning REAL FOOD CHALLENGES

There’s standard real food for endurance sports and then we need to factor in the self supported nature of trail running, where we are limited in our real food options due to:

  • size, shape and weight of contents in our packs
  • food safety with heat, UV and sweat exposure
  • mess, deformity and squashing of food in packs

You can extend your range of food options by using drop bags, aid stations, insulating food you carry (alfoil and insulated bags), using hard covers for your food, freezing and refrigeration. We’ve collated the table below rating what we think are the best to worst most recommended real foods for endurance sports. There is consideration to savoury and sweet options to provide taste variation and vegan options. We’ve rated the food types a total score out of 10 in categorical needs and wants for unsupported, endurance trail running. We hope you get a kick out of the very specific needs of our sport and keep in mind a few of these variables are just based on my personal preference. We’ve added Scotty Hawkers and Lucy Bartholomews go to foods even though they may only be practical using aid stations rather than carrying it on the move. We’ve included what typical foods we have at aid stations on our tours (jelly snakes, watermelon and packet chips).

THE TRAIL BUS REAL FOOD RATING CHART

Food NameSweet or SavouryVegan optionsReal FoodPack survival (using sandwich bag or its package)Fuel contentIs it a gel?Contains caffeine?Is it safe pack warm?Is it still delicious pack warm?Is it lightweight?Is it time friendly to consume?TOTAL SCORE
Jelly snakes (x3)SWEETYESYESYES30 grams of carbs/129 caloriesNONOYESYESYESYES9/10
Raisins
About 70 raisins – small handful (35g)
SWEETYESYESYES25-30 grams of carbs/100 caloriesNONOYESYESYESYES9/10
Medjool Dates 1.5 dates (36g)SWEETYESYESYES25-30 grams of carbs/100 caloriesNONOYESYESYESYES9/10
Small pitted dates
5 dates (40g)
SWEETYESYESYES25-30 grams of carbs/100 caloriesNONOYESYESYESYES9/10
Dried apricots
5-6 apricots (30-35g)
SWEETYESYESYES25-30 grams of carbs/100 caloriesNONOYESYESYESYES9/10
Dried pineapple
1.5 rings (30g)
SWEETYESYESYES25-30 grams of carbs/100 caloriesNONOYESYESYESYES9/10
Banana chips
16 chips (50g)
SWEETYESYESYES25-30 grams of carbs/100 caloriesNONOYESYESYESYES9/10
Sunflower seeds (handful or 1/4 of a cup)SAVOURYYESYESYES6.5 grams of carbs/163 caloriesNOYESYESYESYESYES9/10
Perky Jerky (a strip)SAVOURYYESYESYES9 grams of carbs/80 caloriesNOYESYESYESYESYES9/10
Cold drip coffee (100ml)SAVOURYYESYESYES
BOTTLE
1.4 grams of carbs/9 caloriesNOYESYESYESYESYES9/10
x1 baked/mashed potatoSAVOURYYESYESYES37 grams of carbs/161 caloriesNONOYESYESNOYES IF MASH7.5/10
Pretzels (1 medium soft pretzel (115 grams))SAVOURYYESYESNO79.8 grams of carbs/389 caloriesNONOYESYESYESNO7/10
Frozen Grapes (handful)SWEETYESYESYES14 grams of carbs/52 caloriesNONOYESNOYESYES7/10
Baby Food/custard sachet. Chocolate Custard 120gSWEETYESYESYES17.3 grams of carbs/118 caloriesNONOYES BUT GROSENOYESYES6.5/10
Sports GelSWEETNOYESYES25 grams of carbs/100 caloriesYESYESYES BUT GROSENOYESYES6.5/10
Bean wrap/burritoSAVOURYYESNONO51 grams of carbs/420 caloriesNONOYESYESNONO6/10
Packet chips. 1 packet (16 g) of Smith’s Sour Cream & Chives.)SAVOURYYESNONO11.2 grams of carbs/69 caloriesNONOYESYESYESNO6/10
Rice Cakes (x1 plain unsalted brown rice cake)SAVOURYYESNONO7.3 grams of carbs/35 caloriesNONOYESYESYESNO6/10
Coconut water (250ml)SAVOURYYESNOYES
BOTTLE
10 grams of carbs/28 caloriesNONOYESNONOYES6/10
Banana
1 medium or large banana (120-135g)
SWEETYESNONO25-30 grams of carbs/100 caloriesNONOYES BUT GROSENONOYES5/10
Watermelon (1 slice)SWEETYESNONO4.2 grams of carbs/17 caloriesNONOYES BUT GROSENONOYES4.5/10
Vegemite and cheese sandwichSAVOURYYESNONO34 grams of carbs/268 caloriesNONONOYESNONO4/10
Sushi rice ballsSAVOURYYESNONO40 grams of carbs/203 caloriesNONONONONONO4/10

The PROS

We asked the pros about their experience with real food fuelling both good and bad. Here’s what they had to say…

LUCY BARTHOLOMEW

Lucy Bartholomew. Athlete/Proudly Australian🐨 /Fresh air seeker🌬 /Adventure lover🏕 🏃‍♀️ /Sunrise chaser🌞 /Plant muncher🌱 . Team: @salomonrunning @suunto @spring_energy @lebent_ m.facebook.com/watch/?v=1253728488028601

Chris: Hi Lucy, we are doing a blog on real food fuelling. We will def be referencing your watermelon love as we also have watermelons as snacks at our tour aid stations. I was wondering if you would mind recalling a time where a particular food really didn’t work for you?

Lucy B: “Hey Chris! Sounds rad!

A good that didn’t work for me.. 🤔… i was told pickle juice would cure my tight calf muscle and i skulled a whole jar and after 200m leaving the aid station had it come out my nose and mouth . It was revolting 😂. Actual food wise i have been ok, i mean the aversion to actual gels is a real thing but everything stays down pretty well… unless it’s something I’ve made at home and thought would be wonderful in the pack out on a run and have had multiple oat based recipes get stuck half way down my throat due to lack of saliva and water haha 😆. Hope this helps!!”

SCOTTY HAWKER

ꜱᴄᴏᴛᴛʏ ʜᴀᴡᴋᴇʀ. Athlete🥈CCC 2021 🥉UTMB 2019 Trailrunner for @vibram @kailasgear @camelbak @bvsport @corosglobal @t8.run @leki.trailrunning @fractelrunning @rudyproject utmbmontblanc.com/en/live/ccc

Chris: Hi Scotty, congrats on such an amazing run at CCC. It was so enjoyable to watch you killing it. I wondered if you ate any real foods at CCC? If so did you have a favourite?

Scotty H: “Hi Chris, thanks. Yeah I had sushi rice balls and mashed potato too. My go to.”

Scotty wasn’t alone with his nutrition success as he is supported by his nutritionist girlfriend at Ibex Endurance Nutrition. If you would like to discuss Scotty’s run coaching services more info is available here: https://www.facebook.com/ScottyHawkerEnduranceTeam/

This pic is owned by Matthew Kadey and sourced from http://www.matthewkadey.com/

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, http://www.matthewkadey.com, Registered Dietitian, Nutrition Consultant. Contributor to: Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Bodybuidling.com, Bicycling, Runner’s World, Vegetarian Times, Bicycling, Men’s Journal, Shape, Prevention, Gluten Free and More, Natural Health, Alive, Fit Pregnancy, Health, and Muscle and Fitness. Author of: Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sports + Adventure (VeloPress 2016), Muffin Tin Chef (Ulysses 2012), The No-Cook, No-Bake Cookbook (Ulysses 2013) 

Chris: “Hi there Matthew, In your experience what was the worst choice you’ve made and learned from in your own sport fuelling?”

Matthew K: “Definitely, worst fueling mistake I made was to rely solely on bars, gels and chews for a very long event. Ended up with serious gut rot. Now I know to also fuel with “real” food to mix things up and help out my stomach.“

The Basics

common fuelling advice and further reading

When assessing your real foods options, sports drinks studies can help us understand the basic links between carb consumption, gastric distress and hydration needs for effective fuel absorption. This article has some great info about what to consider in your real food fuel and hydration needs based off what sports drinks can deliver. This can help you plan how much water/liquids to ingest with your planned real food carb intake to help in digestion. https://sportmedbc.com/article/sports-drinks-and-athletic-performance

Summary

  • Hydration is critical for optimal athletic performance.
  • Solid research has made it evident that sports drinks enhance sports performance when used properly.
  • Sports drinks comprised of a 4-8% carbohydrate concentration are most easily emptied by the stomach and absorbed in the small intestine.
  • Sodium provided in sports drinks stimulates thirst and decreases urine losses.
  • Sports drinks should be utilized during high intensity exercise and endurance sports.
  • Tolerance and use of sports drinks will vary among individual athletes. A qualified sports dietitian can help athletes maximize the effectiveness of sports drinks.”

Give yourself options. Practice and train your body with all your real food and backup “wheels fall off” options in as many variable conditions as possible. There are so many variables to success in fuelling endurance sports, that the “do what works for you” theme, can make it hard to get a straight answer. If you just want a nutritionist to straight up tell you what to do blow for blow check out this article written for UTMB by Dietician Nutritionist Corinne Peirano. Take it with a grain of salt and an open mind that this may be written focussing on elite athletes. In particular the weight loss information may be best done through consultation with your GP taking into account your individual factors and motivators. https://utmbmontblanc.com/en/page/29/Ultra%20Trail%20du%20Mont-Blanc%20and%20Sports%20Nutrition.html

Sandwiches are a great real food option that is if you can keep them from turning into hot, moist, doughy brickettes in your pack. There are products that can help you with this such as a $8.95 K2 sandwich box. I’ve got 1 of these on order and I’m looking forward to locking and loading my promite and cheese single life changer in there and enjoying a civilized and historically rectangle shaped, structurally sound sandwich. They are also a more environmentally sustainable option than sandwich bags.

If you get sandwich protection dialled in, this article has some great suggestions for different sandwich types “15 other sandwiches that won’t get soggy when you’re out and about.”

For details on the basics around making your own real food test plan and real food nutrient content, this article has some great simple advice. https://www.nomeatathlete.com/whole-food-running-fuel/

Insulated food bags can also help prolong life of foods in packs. There are reusable options. If your food storage bag is air tight you may also be able to leave a little air in the bag to give your food some space and prevent it from being squished. You may be able to lower the temperature in your pack by freezing your bladder. This can help keep your body temp down, keep your adjacent foods cooler and provide some refreshing cooler liquid to drink. Some salomon vests come with an insulated sleeve designed for bladders. You can use these to hold and insulate your food similar to the bags below.

Insulated Backpacking Food Pouch Cozy - Ultralight Hiker
XL White Foil Lined Paper Bags - Alpha Food Packaging
Aluminum Foil Bag, Heat Seal Foil Bags Manufacturer - TedPack

Foods to avoid

The articles citing the worst foods for endurance sports usually include soda/fizzy drinks. Now any trail runner who’s had a cold coke on course whilst they are deep in the pain cave knows that this can be quite the opposite. I liken it to the movie Mad Max Fury road where the War Boys have a chug of Valhalla spray during battle (be it a temporary fix). With that in mind, I’ve excluded a few popular websites for that reason and have instead linked a study done in Canada for the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Dietary restrictions in endurance runners to mitigate exercise-induced gastrointestinal symptoms.

Here’s the food types that were commonly avoided by the studies surveyed endurance runners pre-race. There’s plenty more information on the study accessible in the link above. This can give you insight into the most avoided foods and the types of gastric distress associated with them specific to your age, distance running and gender.

My 2 cents

chris wright

For me intense days have always been touch and go with fuelling. The biggest challenge has been running at an intensity where I have zero appetite, my stomach struggles to process and digest, I don’t give myself permission or the time to take a fuel break, I don’t like the taste and texture and I completely go rogue from the loose nutrition plan. All these resulted in the same, under performance and making the run considerably harder than it needed to be and some instances not finishing at all.

Running tours is a lot different. There’s time, there’s lower intensity, there’s others relying on you and you need to have something in the tank in preparation for emergency response. I like to think I’m wiser now, but put me in a race and I’ll probably bonk out with the best of them, cramping way back in time to 1999.

Here’s my 3 tips for a long day out on the trails real food success:

  1. Have a decent sized enjoyable real food breakfast 1-2 hours before you run. Set yourself up well before you head out. It’s not rocket surgery Mum! If you are struggling to ingest later at least you’ve already got something in the tank.
  2. Favourites trumps anything & anything trumps nothing. Set yourself up with the path of least resistance. The most calorie dense gel means nothing if you avoid and prolong eating them. The psychological boost I get from looking forward to eating something I enjoy has yet to come from a pack warmed Cola-Raspberry-Mocha gel. If the nutrition ingestion wheels fall off and there’s no aid stations with watermelon, I’m onto the emergency gels and sports drink for the tough crawl home.

3. Hydrate knowing you need it to efficiently digest your food.

So it looks like there is a lot more to trail running endurance than just gels and sports drink. Enjoyable real food can be a part of your trail running adventures and may only be a few test runs away. Just like we train our bodies to run trails, it seems that training our stomachs and digestive systems is just as important. A well trained system gives us more nutrition option range, resilience to stresses and contingency plans for change. Get out there and enjoy your training and research with a trail run real food degustation. Good luck on your journey and finding what works best for you. If all fails hit me up and I’ll prepare you one of the finest gourmet promite and cheese single sandwiches you’ll ever taste.

I hope you’ve found something here that might help in your real food trail running success. Thanks to all those who contributed to this blog. We’d love to hear about your own experiences and thoughts so please drop them below in the comments or send us a message. We look forward to taking you out, beyond and back on a Trail Bus Tour soon.

Safe and enjoyable trails

Chris Wright

Trail Bus Tour Operator

4 thoughts on “What real foods are good to eat on trail runs?”

  1. Great blog post! Love the Lucy feature hehe. Those lunch pack bags are a dope idea.
    I would also like to chime in as I recently found out that bagels sound like a good idea in the pack until they are too dry and impossible to eat.

    1. Thanks Lil,
      Lucy is such a champion and so open to sharing her time and advice. Ohhhh bagels there’s one to steer clear of. Thanks for the tip. Great job field testing some new ideas.

  2. I couldn’t help but add the Homer Simpson “mmmmmmmmm hot, moist, doughy brickettes”.

    I always think that you need a plan B and C… I normally go OK with gels, but sometimes I just need to totally change it up.

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