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Real Food For Fuel

There are a raft of sports gels, bars, drinks and chews on the market. While many of the products offer quick energy and nutrition when you’re on the go, some products are laden with calories, fats, sugars, and other additives that rival the common candy bar.

The good news is, there are plenty of whole-food fueling alternatives that can rev up your workout without filling you out. Whole grains, fruits, and veggies may not come with flashy packaging or bold promises, but they can provide pre-run energy, assist in carb-loading for your next long-distance race, and offer a mid-run boost when you need it. Plus they provide essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that will bolster your all-around health. What’s more you won’t have to worry about cholesterol, trans fats, food colorings, preservatives, sodium, dangerous additives, or whether they’re cutting in to your calorie-cutting efforts.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are a good source of vitamin A, which boosts eyesight, and vitamin C, to boost immunity, plus potassium, iron, and manganese, which aid muscle function. One small potato that weighs about 3 ½ ounces has 24 grams of carbs to energize you for your next run. Cook your potatoes, microwave and mash them, or cut them into smaller fry-like sticks that you can put in a Ziploc bag and carry with you on your run.


There’s a reason why most race finish lines are packed with bananas. Bananas provide potassium to help prevent muscle cramps. And one medium banana has 27 grams of carbs and 1.3 grams of protein, plus vitamin B6—which helps convert proteins and sugars into energy and helps build cells. Bananas also contain magnesium, which assists in muscle contractions and metabolism, endurance, and aerobic capacity. In fact in a study published in the May 2012 issue of the online journal PLoS One, researchers from Appalachian State University found that bananas boosted athletic performance just as well as sports drinks.


And there’s some truth to the old adage that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Apples have flavonoids and antioxidants that can reduce risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, asthma, and diabetes. A medium-sized apple delivers 22 grams of carbs plus five grams of fiber—20% of the recommended daily allowance to prevent heart disease. While apples contain fructose—which you may have heard is bad if you are avoiding sugars— the five grams of fiber in the average medium-sized apple allows for a slow release of energy. The apple skins also contain Quercetin, a nutrient that can help fight disease, inflammation, heart disease, and other chronic diseases. And studies have shown that it can improve your running and aid your weight-loss efforts. A study in the January 2013 issue of the International Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that Quercetin could improve lean body mass, total body water, resting metabolism, and calorie burn. Apples also contain Boron, which has been shown to help treat some forms of arthritis, prevent tooth decay, and reduce menopausal symptoms in women.


A medium orange delivers 19 grams of carbs, and more than 100% of your daily dose of vitamin C, to help boost your immune system and fend off coughs and colds and fight free radicals that damage muscles. Oranges also help prevent muscle breakdown after you’ve been pushing yourself hard, plus they provide potassium and even one gram of protein.


Easy to carry, raisins offer a nutritious mid-run fueling option. One ounce of raisins—about 60 raisins—delivers 22 grams of carbs. A study in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that raisins and sports chews are just as effective as sports chews in boosting running performance. In the study, athletes who ate raisins showed the same changes in heart rate, lactic acid levels in blood, rate of perceived exertion, and other factors as athletes who consumed chews. Plus raisins created no additional GI distress. Raisins also deliver Iron, vitamins A and C, plus traces of riboflavin, niacin, folate, and vitamin K. Raisins also contain antioxidants that may protect cells from oxidative damage, and help slow processes associated with aging.


With 29 carbs in a ¼ cup serving—which makes about ¾ cups when it is cooked—Quinoa makes great source of energy that will rev up your workout without upsetting your stomach. And it has been called a “miracle grain” for good reason. Quinoa, which is gluten-free, packs more nutrition than other grains. It has more fiber, potassium and nearly twice as much protein as brown rice. Quinoa is easy to prepare—just add it to boiling water and cook for 15 minutes. So it makes an ideal pre-run breakfast.

Steel-Cut Oats

Steel cut oats have 27 grams of carbs in a ½ cup serving, plus a raft of health benefits. Oatmeal contains soluble fiber, which reduces cholesterol, plus beta-glucan, which can help boost immunity, along with protein, iron, fiber, calcium, folate. Steel cut oats have a lower-glycemic index than traditional oats, plus they have more fiber and no added sugar. Many people prefer the more chewy texture than traditional oats.