Sports nutrition products were developed for a reason, but some runners may turn to lollies for fuel.
There’s nothing like a long run for bringing out your mind’s deepest thoughts. Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Could I eat lollies instead of this gel?
Unfortunately, you’re on your own with the first two. But there is scientific evidence to help determine your mid-run fuel.
If you’ve ever heard someone say, “sugar is sugar”, they’re only kind of right. Yes, all simple carbohydrates have the same number of kilojoules per gram (16.7), and all provide fuel that your body can use quickly. But there are significant differences, especially in the way your body digests them, explains Patrick Wilson, Ph.D., RD, an assistant professor in the Human Movement Sciences at Old Dominion University in the US.
In 2015, Wilson authored a review of studies published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, which found taking in more than one type of carbohydrate (like glucose and fructose) could speed absorption of the fuel and lower your risk for GI misery. “Essentially your intestines have a maximal rate of absorption for specific sugars because the intestinal protein transporters can be saturated or maxed out above a certain rate. That’s a bad thing because it can lead to carbohydrate sitting in the gut, which is likely to cause GI symptoms and decrease performance,” he says, adding that anyone taking in more than 50 grams of carbohydrate an hour should be actively working to mix things up. It’s recommended to consume 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour on runs 60 minutes or more.
“Most sports foods provide different sources of carbohydrates, which for longer races or events, results in the body using different metabolic pathways to convert carbohydrates to sugar for fuel,” says Stevie Smith, a DC-based registered dietitian and five-time Ironman finisher. She adds, “Beyond that, products such as Clif Shot Blocks or Gu Chomps offer the electrolytes you need, like sodium, potassium, and magnesium, that lollies don’t.”
Candy manufacturers, however, aren’t thinking about these things. In fact, they’re not thinking about athletes at all when they build recipes. And that may result in unintended consequences for marathoners who chug Skittles midrace. “We need to be mindful of what else is in them,” says Dina Griffin, R.D., a board-certified sports dietitian who works with athletes at e-NRG Performance in Colorado, USA. Things like artificial colours, preservatives and – in the case of Skittles – hydrogenated palm oil, can be a shock to the system.
But if you practised with candy and felt okay in your training runs you may be in the clear (as long as you replace your electrolytes in some other way). “If you wish to train with lollies, I’d recommend first looking at lower fat or fat-free candy options, especially if working out at higher intensities to prevent GI distress,” says Smith. “In general, look for the simplest list of ingredients to get the benefit of the quick energy from the simple sugars without the risk of potential ill effects.”
There are elite athletes who use lollies to fuel and live to talk about it. Ultrarunner Clare Gallagher bought a 800g tub of Sour Patch Kids before her victorious assault on the Leadville 100 [a trail race in Colorado, USA] last year. She went the lolly route in part because it was cheaper than buying sports-specific chews, but also because she wanted something her crew could enjoy too.
For lollies made mostly from sugar, Wilson advises a one-for-one kilojoule swap with your traditional sports nutrition. Bars like Snickers get more complicated. Since a fair portion of the kilojoules come from fat (37 kJ per gram), not carbs (16 kJ per gram), you’ll need to figure out the exact number of carbohydrate kilojoules the bar packs and use that number to figure out how much to eat. “You’d have to consume more kJs of that candy to get the same amount of carbohydrate. That may be fine during an event like ultramarathon in which the average intensity is lower, but people tend to have more digestive issues with foods that contain substantial amounts of protein and fat during higher-intensity events like a half or full marathon,” says Wilson.
Of course, there’s one other drawback to using candy instead of gels: having it around the house is infinitely more tempting than having a packet of gels in your pantry. If you think you’ve got the self-restraint to keep them on hand for training runs, go for it. But if you might find yourself indulging during marathon Netflix sessions, not marathon training sessions, be very, very careful.
Want to try it? Here’s what fuelling with candy might look like for a variety of distances.
For runs or races shorter than one hour: sorry, you probably don’t actually need any lollies. If you want a sugar boost, consider swishing a carbohydrate solution, like Gatorade, then spitting it out. Research has shown that just tasting the sugar can give you a jolt of energy.
For runs or races between one to two hours, a 2014 review of studies published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism recommends taking in 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. This is what that looks like in candy form.
For ultra-distance events, you may be able to consume products with more fat in them, since you generally run at a slightly slower intensity, says Wilson. But don’t forget to try them in training first. Still, it’s important to keep a close eye on the number of calories from carbohydrates each option provides. For example, a Snickers bar has 1030 kilojoules, but a large portion of those come from fat, not carbs. “That extra fat is basically providing kilojoules without any likely benefit to performance,” says Wilson. If you were really craving a Snickers at the 80th kilometre of a 100K race, it would be fine to eat one, but you’d need to also consume a gel or some other source of carbs within the hour to ensure you were getting enough quick-burning fuel.
How many grams of carbohydrate you need can range from 40 to 110 grams per hour depending on your size, age and your exercise intensity. For clarity’s sake, these recommendations are for 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour, which Wilson considers to be on the aggressive side, but not unrealistic for someone attacking an all-day event.
It’s also important to note that all of the fat-free options listed above would also work in ultra-distance events, and would carry less chance of gastric misery. But if you do want to fuel with chocolate, try M&Ms. They’re loaded with sugar, and melt in your mouth. If you struggle with chewing and running, you can plop a few on your tongue and slowly let them dissolve. (They may also melt in your pack, but that’s another issue entirely.)