This article was published in the Vegetarian Journal

As a distance runner, it’s important that I give my body proper fuel on my long runs and during long-distance races. Failing to do so can lead to a crash midway or what is frequently called “hitting the wall” in the running community. This is when the carbohydrate stores are depleted, and the body has nothing left to burn — it’s not a good feeling.

The easiest way to avoid crashing is to fuel with gels, chews, or blocks. These are pre-made and packaged for a runner’s convenience. Beyond containing carbohydrates, these products have added electrolytes and amino acids to ensure athletes’ bodies are balanced and functioning their best. From specialty running shops and sporting goods stores to big box retailers and major grocery chains, they’re widely available. Luckily, there are a variety of vegan options, free of gelatin, honey, and other animal byproducts. Many companies are now also switching to organic ingredients, natural sugar sources, and natural coloring. Listed below are some of the most popular, vegan-friendly fuel products.

CLIF Bloks Energy Chews

  • Every chew is certified USDA organic
  • Allergen information boasts Chews are free of dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, nuts, and soy
  • Some flavors contain added caffeine or sodium (this is labeled on packaging)
  • Flavors: Black Cherry, Citrus, Cran-Razz, Margarita, Mountain Berry, Orange, Strawberry, Tropical Punch

Huma Chia Energy Gels

  • Every gel is labeled vegan and gluten-free
  • Boasts chia seeds, fruit purée, and coconut water as main ingredients in every gel
  • Some flavors contain added caffeine (this is labeled on packaging)
  • Flavors: Strawberry Lemonade, Berries & Pomegranate, Strawberries, Apples & Cinnamon, Mangoes, Blueberries, Raspberries, Lemonade, Chocolate, Café Mocha

Gu Energy Gels

  • Every gel is labeled vegan and gluten-free
  • Boasts newly-developed amino acid formula that is 100% plant-based
  • Some flavors contain added caffeine or sodium (this is labeled on packaging)
  • Flavors: Carmel Macchiato, Salted Watermelon, Root Beer, Salted Caramel, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Peanut Butter, Vanilla Bean, Chocolate Outrage, Tri-Berry, Strawberry Banana, Jet Blackberry, Espresso Love, Mandarin Orange, Lemon Sublime, Cucumber Mint, Big Apple, Maple Bacon, Tastefully Nude

For each product above, all flavors are safe for vegans to consume. However, many brands have mostly vegan gels with the exception of a few flavors, and brands like Gu and CLIF have additional product lines that are not vegan. Before trying a brand or product not listed above, find the nutrition/ingredient information online via the company’s website or carefully read the nutrition labels in store.

Not everyone has the stomach or taste buds for gels and chews. They can also be quite expensive, with each package costing between $1 and $3. Fruits and favorite salty snacks are great alternative carbohydrate sources. The key to fueling with whole foods is to avoid choices that are high in fat or protein as the body can’t quickly convert those into energy; too much fiber isn’t good either because it can upset the stomach. The following whole-food fuel sources are perfect vegan options to take out on a long run because they’re portable and can quickly be grabbed before heading out the door:

  • Raisins, dates, or cherries
  • Mashed sweet potatoes or bananas
  • Pretzels or potato chips
  • Grapes, orange slices, or other low-fiber fruit
  • Jam sandwich cut into small pieces
  • Applesauce, baby food, or fruit purée packets

For peak performance, runners need approximately 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour when planning to be out on the road for an hour to two and a half hours. If planning to be out for two and a half to three hours, 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour is recommended. Smaller amounts of carbohydrate intake, such as sipping on sports drinks, can be beneficial for shorter, high intensity runs lasting between 45 and 75 minutes, but for any run lasting 45 minutes or less, it’s not necessary to fuel while exercising.1

Experimenting with just a little bit of fuel on shorter runs is the best way to start acclimating to ingesting food while exercising. Note how much fuel allows you to enjoy optimal performance and how much ends with a run cut short due to stomach distress — maintaining a log or journal for a few weeks can help you keep track of this. Wash down whatever fuel you decide to consume with water, not a sports drink; this prevents a carbohydrate overload, which the body can’t process.

Being a vegan runner doesn’t have to be complicated. Major brands are making their products vegan friendly, and whole-food fuel alternatives can be as simple as throwing fruit or chips into a bag. The most important tip to remember is to pick foods that are appetizing and will still be appetizing after hours on the road.

1 Thomas T, Erdman KA, Burke LM. 2016. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 116:501-28

Savannah Lawrence has run numerous half-marathons, 10ks, and 5Ks. She recently graduated from Stevenson University in Maryland and is a former Vegetarian Resource Group intern.

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