Real Foods for Your Sports Nutrition Needs

When it comes to sports nutrition, sometimes the basics are best

There was once a time when Gatorade and other electrolyte drinks didn’t exist, and “gel” wasn’t something we thought of as food or fuel, in any way. Sports nutrition products are relatively new to the sport, and plenty of athletes got by without them—and thrived without them—for a long time. Real food was sufficient.

By eating a healthy variety of real food it means you’re naturally consuming a well-balanced diet with electrolytes, proteins, fats and carbohydrates. A variety of real food sources can provide the nutrition we need before, during and after a run. And we could all save a few bucks by incorporating a mix of real food snacks as a supplement to the sometimes costly sport-specific products.

Need another reason to introduce real food to your sport fueling routine? It’s not uncommon for runners, at any level, to get a lot of their calories from gels, chewy and sugary “blocks” or sport beans, sport drinks and energy bars. In doing so, it’s possible to miss out on healthy, real food components such as fiber, essential amino acids, unsaturated fats, and the wide variety of vitamins and minerals needed for both sport performance and health.

Save some money and get more nutrients with five sport-friendly, real food snacks on (or after) your next run.

Raisins

Dried fruit is a dense source of sugar, and still provides most of the same health benefits of eating fresh or raw fruits. About one-third cup of raisins (i.e. dried grapes) will provide you with over 300 mg of potassium—an important electrolyte for hydration—and about 35g of carbohydrates. Toss this sticky snack in some salt if you want to add sodium to the mix too. They’re small and easy to consume and they pack easily in a zippered bag.

Stuffed Dates

Dates are another dried fruit and dense source of sugars. Conveniently, dates are easy to stuff (once you remove the pit), so it’s easy to customize this snack to your preferences as a replacement to sugary gels. Anne Mauney, a Washington DC-based sports dietitian, is a big fan of adding nut butter and salt to her dates. “This mix of dates, nut butter, and salt, helps keep energy levels more stable, and can help replace electrolytes lost from sweat,” she says.

Pro tip: Fix these the night before and refrigerate. Otherwise, they can make quite a mess.

Tart Cherry Juice

While not technically a “food,” this fruit juice is a hydration option when you want to skip the processed powders. Lauren Thomas, MS RDN CSSD and running coach for Team in Training, recommends tart cherry juice for its high concentration of anthocyanins—an anti-inflammatory antioxidant. “Studies have shown tart cherry juice provides an easy means to faster recovery after strenuous exercise,” Thomas says. It provides a boost to the immune system, while decreasing muscle damage and reducing oxidative stress, she adds. The recommended serving for a pre- or post-workout drink is 8-10 ounces.

Applesauce

Food companies are getting creative with real-food pouches that are easy to squeeze-and-eat on the run. While you can choose from a variety of creative food combinations (e.g. CLIF Bar’s Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal pouch in their Organic Energy Food line), you can also choose to keep it simple. Another one of Thomas’s recommendations is applesauce—rich in carbohydrates, easy on the stomach, and with a welcome, real-food texture–for those who can’t quite stomach the gels. Packets of applesauce are easily portable and conveniently packaged. Look for them in the snack food and baby food aisles

Bananas

While many runners prefer to eat bananas before or after their run, a few slices of banana during a run can be helpful too. This fruit is relatively high in carbohydrates and naturally loaded with potassium. For a tasty treat, slice a banana and spread a thin layer of nut butter or Nutella between slices, then freeze, and take them with you in a plastic bag.

Pro tip: Snack on these when you know you’ll have access to a water fountain, a stream or you’re carrying water with you because your fingers will get sticky!

After the run

Choosing to refuel with a smoothie, bowl of oats, sandwich, or even dinner leftovers should suffice. Only in extreme cases—such as very high-volume training, food allergies or restrictions—would a protein or nutrition supplement be needed. In that case, consult a sports dietitian to assess your personal needs. Otherwise, turn to real food first!

READ MORE: How to Replace Electrolytes With Real Food

Remember, if you’re fueling on a run, you should be getting about 30-60g of carbohydrates per hour. Keep that in mind when you pack up these snacks and eat them on the go. Start by swapping one or two of the suggestions above for one of your sport nutrition products, and see how your gut handles the transition. Ease into the change, as you ease into your training cycle, and see what works best for you.

Heather Caplan, RDN
Heather Caplan is a registered dietitian with a private practice based out of Washington DC. She writes about running and nutrition for various publications, and on her own Real Talk RD blog at heathercaplan.com.