Marathoners love energy gels. The darling brand is GU, pronounced “goo.” It comes in, let’s see, a million flavors, like birthday cake, salted watermelon, and campfire s’mores. All provide “energy-dense calories,” designed to reduce fatigue, replace lost sodium, and make you less likely to burst into tears around mile 17.
But they freak me out. Maybe it’s that they promise to taste like French toast but come in a slurpable pouch. Maybe it’s that I’ve always been weird about “fun” snack products. Even as a kid, I disliked most candy, from gummy bears to Skittles, which was as uncool as it sounds.
Disliking energy gels is just as problematic. These are as ubiquitous in running training guides as they are on race courses, where they’re handed out at aid stations. I knew I needed to fuel myself sufficiently during my runs (“the wall” runners talk about is real). Which meant I needed to find something else.
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Then I stumbled upon this blog post on No-Meat Athlete all about homemade energy gel. “I absolutely HATE normal gels, gu’s, or whatever you want to call them,” wrote Matt Frazier, a vegan ultramarathoner and author. “I’ve stopped even trying to eat them during runs.”
Frazier found his replacement in the book Thrive. It’s mostly dates and agave nectar, rounded out with citrus zest and sea salt. I adapted the version to use maple syrup or honey instead, which I’m more likely to have around, and incorporate citrus juice, which makes it more slurpable and less cloying. I also added chia seeds, which, according to the book Born to Run, are a running superfood (and make the gel less runny).
Here’s the formula: 4 dried, pitted dates. 1/2 cup maple syrup or honey. Grated zest from 1 lemon and 1 lime. Juice from 1 lemon or 1 lime. 1 pinch salt. 2 teaspoons chia seeds. Buzz up everything but the chia seeds in a blender or food processor until smooth, taste, and adjust as necessary. Stir in the chia seeds.
This yields about 2 energy gels for me—or, enough for 1 marathon—but this might be more or less for you. (You know what they say: Nothing new on race day. Try it out at least a few times on training runs.) I usually made my gel the day before a long run, but you can make it up to a week in advance and store in the fridge. Just like a commercial energy gel, my date-chia situation is smooth enough to “eat” while running. I just add it to a tiny plastic bag, tear the corner with my teeth, then slurp away. Cute, right?
I asked around the office to see if anyone else had any gel alternatives and—what else did I expect working at a food publication?—of course they did. Our books and special projects editor Brinda Ayer loves the waffles (yep, waffles!) from Honey Stinger—and our strategy and finance manager Annalee Leggett loves Honey Stinger, too. Our full stack developer Lucas Monaco loves Snickers bars (seriously) and bananas (same). Our office coordinator Max McDonough said: “Strawberries helped me but I think it was an emotional thing.” And our co-founder Amanda Hesser “carried a baggie filled with raisins and nuts” when she ran Boston in ’91. “The OG power foods.”
All of which to say, there are a lot of things, besides gels, that can power you through a marathon. Mostly because: They aren’t actually powering you through the marathon. You are! (Though a Snickers helps, too.)
What are your favorite energy-boosting snacks? Tell us in the comments!
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter.