Natural endurance: mashed potato and four other foods that give energy gels a run for their money

Kate Carter
Photograph: Sheri L Giblin/Getty Images

A new study that reveals that a spoonful of mashed potato is as good at providing energy as fancy gels will come as no surprise to endurance athletes. In a long race, there comes a point when the body runs out of glycogen and needs something else for fuel. The research – which comes with the caveat that it is “supported by the Alliance for Potato Research and Education” – found potato puree compared favourably with energy gels or water in topping up energy levels in long-distance cyclists.

But while potato, or a nice slice of toast, might seem preferable to sickly, synthetically flavoured gels, solid foods are hard to carry and even harder to digest when you’re 15 miles into a marathon. Hence the energy gel: a 20-40g shot of carbs wrapped up in an easy-to-open package. Yet nature too, has carb-rich foods in handy packages – here are four natural alternatives:

Honey

Like commercial gels, honey is comprised primarily of fructose and glucose, a combination that the body absorbs better than glucose alone. Honey has been used as a running fuel since the original Olympic Games in ancient Greece. These days, it even comes in runner-friendly sachets – though it is, of course, very sweet and sticky.

Fruit pouches

The pureed fruit pouches sold as snacks for babies and toddlers make pretty good fuel for athletes, too – and because they are just squashed up fruit, they tend to be more palatable than gels. They are popular among ultra runners, but are a little more bulky to carry and don’t offer quite as much of a carb-rich hit as a gel.

Raisins

Still in the kids’ food aisle, mini packs of raisins provide a good source of carbs, as do other dried fruit such as dates. One study at the University of California found that raisins worked just as well as gels for a group of runners undergoing a time trial after an 80-minute run.

Guava jellies

For years, Colombian cyclists have been fuelling on bocadillo de guayaba, a kind of solidified guava jam rich in carbs and really tasty, like a bigger, classier, fruit pastille. The traditional form comes in small red blocks, wrapped in dried leaves.