A trail runner’s favorite topic isn’t running — it’s food! As runners, many of us are constantly thinking about food — specifically, what to eat next. We strategize and plan how to properly fuel before and during our run to optimize and sustain our energy and maximize our performance and how to use food to support recovery after a run so that we can stay healthy and get back on the trail as soon as possible.
Of course, while there’s plenty of research and science-backed data on fueling for running and endurance sports, running food is a particularly personal topic. Each of us has a unique palate, individual preferences, and tolerances, sensitivities, or allergies that influence our food and fueling choices.
Rather than trying to come up with “the best” foods for running, we’ve compiled a collection of our favorites among the iRunFar editorial team. Together, we have more than 150 years of running experience across a wide range of distances, climates, and terrain. We’re hoping that the knowledge we’ve gained from both our successes and failures with fueling for running will give you a leg up as you hone in on what works best for you.
Here are the iRunFar editorial team’s favorite foods for fueling up pre-run, maintaining energy while running, and boosting post-run recovery. We hope this one’s as fun for you to read as it was for us to eat — er, write.
This isn’t your average nut butter — Trail Butter is a calorie-dense blend that is high in fat and protein and incorporates a mix of nuts, seeds, fruits, oils, and sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, and chocolate. It comes in four main blends: Original Trail Mix Nut Butter Blend, Maple Syrup & Sea Salt Almond Cashew Butter Blend, and Dark Chocolate & Coffee Almond Butter Blend, which is caffeinated, and the new Spiced Chai Almond Cashew Butter Blend. In addition, Trail Butter regularly offers limited edition blends, each of which benefits one of Trail Butter’s non-profit partners.
This nut buttery fuel is available in a few sizes to suit a variety of uses — from carrying on the trail in a gel-sized, single-serving pouch to stashing on the kitchen shelf. While the iRunFar team opts for toast or oatmeal as its primary nut butter vehicle, Trail Butter offers plenty of culinary inspiration with more than a dozen recipes on its website.
For a topping that will add deliciously sweet, nutty flavor to any food, we love Picky Bars Drizzle. Made with almonds, organic coconut sugar, organic maca, organic cinnamon, and organic vanilla, Drizzle makes anything taste like a treat — from toast, yogurt, or oatmeal to your favorite flavor of ice cream — while packing in tons of nutrients.
Gluten-free and vegan, it will accommodate many food allergies and preferences while providing a good source of iron, potassium, calcium, and vitamin E — big thanks to that third ingredient, maca! The only drawback to Drizzle, as Picky Bars itself points out, is that a serving size is two tablespoons and not the entire jar.
When it comes to gels, Spring Energy Awesome Sauce is an iRunFar favorite almost across the board. With a taste and consistency that’s similar to our favorite childhood snack, apple sauce, this calorie-dense pouch of goodness avoids added sugars and artificial ingredients that can overload the digestive system. Although it looks and tastes like apple sauce, Awesome Sauce also incorporates organic basmati rice and yams to help it to pack 45 grams of carbohydrates into one serving.
Other ingredients, like apple juice and sauce, maple syrup, organic lemon juice, cinnamon, sea salt, and vanilla balance the flavor and sweetness. With a relatively short list of ingredients, all of them recognizable, Awesome Sauce avoids common food allergies and is gentle on the stomach, making it a great fueling choice for a wide range of runners.
Another popular fueling source at iRunFar is Gu Roctane Energy Gels, which is specifically designed for long-distance and high-intensity running. Containing up to three times the sodium and branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) as Gu’s original gels, Roctane is intended to help the body sustain energy and resist fatigue when we’re pushing it to the max.
Currently, Gu Roctane is available in 11 flavors, including caffeinated and non-caffeinated options. The flavors vary in the amount of sodium they provide, from 125 to 190 milligrams per serving. At iRunFar, Cherry Lime is the flavor of choice for its blend of sweet and tart. Cherry Lime has 125 milligrams of sodium and 35 milligrams of caffeine (compared to 95 milligrams in an 8-ounce cup of coffee).
Hüma Energy Gels utilize ground chia seeds as a core ingredient. Chia seeds provide essential amino acids and help the body regulate carbohydrate digestion in order to avoid an undesirable energy spike and bonk.
Hüma gels also have sea salt, citric acid, cane sugar, and brown rice syrup. Real fruit delivers electrolytes, easy-to-digest carbohydrates, and delicious flavor.
What we enjoy about these gels is that they are just plain different from most gels on the market, in every way from mouth feel, to ingredients, to taste.
Honey Stinger Energy Gels include — you guessed it — honey as the main energy provider. Electrolytes (salt) and a mix of B vitamins round out the gels’ short ingredients list.
Honey Stinger Energy Gels come in four flavors and can be consumed directly from the 1.1-ounce pouch or spread on toast, stirred into tea, or mixed with water to make an energy drink.
While the honey flavor does have its expected strong honey taste, it doesn’t lead in the other flavor offerings. Rather, a hint of honey is offered along with the other central flavors.
In an effort to tackle the enduring challenge (pun intended) of digesting carbohydrates during prolonged efforts, Maurten Gel 100 brings an innovative, science-based approach to fueling. Its “hydrogel technology” combines sodium alginate (found in brown algae) and pectin (a fiber contained in fruits and vegetables) to create a pH-sensitive gel that protects the carbohydrates and salt in the gel from stomach acid so that it can be absorbed later on by the intestine instead.
There are no added flavors or preservatives, and the result is a gel with a relatively thick consistency and subtle taste that goes down easy. Maurten’s Gel 100 is available in a non-caffeinated or caffeinated option — and fair warning: the caffeinated gel packs in 100 milligrams of caffeine, about the same as an 8-ounce cup of coffee.
If you’re a fan of maple syrup, UnTapped Energy Gels may be your new favorite fuel of choice. Made with pure Vermont maple syrup, this 100-calorie pouch provides a natural source of electrolytes, antioxidants, amino acids, and low-glycemic carbohydrates that supply sustained energy rather than a spike and crash.
Maple syrup is water-soluble, making it easy to digest. The iRunFar team also loves the liquid-like consistency that’s easy to slurp down while running. UnTapped Energy Gels are available in four flavors: Maple (100% maple syrup), Salted Cocoa, Salted Raspberry, and Coffee (which contains 27 milligrams of caffeine).
Honey Stinger Energy Chews top iRunFar’s list of favorite chews, blocks, and gummies. Our team especially loves the Cherry Blossom flavor, though Orange Blossom and Fruit Smoothie are close runners-up.
Each pack contains two servings of six chews — 160 total calories and 39 grams of carbohydrates — providing a good source of fuel in a small package that fits easily into a hydration vest.
While all chews stiffen up some when cold, those made by Honey Stinger do less than others on the market. And, if you’re feeling gastrointestinal woes, making it hard to eat, you can put one of these chews into one of your cheeks and let it slowly dissolve.
Skratch Sport Energy Chews took the runner-up spot and received special call-outs by our testers for their light coating of granulated sugar and sour powder, which differentiate both their texture and flavor from sweeter varieties of chews.
Each package contains two servings of five chews, with 160 total calories and 36 carbohydrates. Skratch offers its Sport Energy Chews in five flavors, two of which have 50 milligrams of caffeine, about half a cup of coffee.
Where Skratch excels, and other companies can sometimes struggle, is in flavor balance. Scratch Sport Energy Chews contain flavor but in a subtle and not overpowering way, which we find increases their palatability for very long days — and nights — on the trail.
There’s admittedly less alignment among our team regarding our favorite bars, and not all of us can eat something so dense while running. Nonetheless, Bobo’s Oat Bars are a favorite at iRunFar as a quick snack during long days on the trail or for a quick energy boost between your day’s workouts. Since they’re vegan and free of gluten, soy, dairy, and nuts, Bobo’s Oat Bars will accommodate a wide variety of runners.
So, what do they contain? Oats, obviously, as well as brown rice syrup, coconut oil, cane sugar, vegetable glycerin, xanthan gum, sea salt, vitamin E, and more, depending on the flavor. A serving size is half a bar and contains 170 calories and 31 grams of carbohydrates, so they’re a calorie-dense and carbohydrate-packed source of fuel.
The iRunFar team also loves Bobo’s Stuff’d Oat Bites ($1.00), which is essentially a mini version of their oat bars. Each Bite can fit in the palm of the hand and contains 150 calories and 26 grams of carbohydrates. The Apple Pie, Peanut Butter & Jelly, and Strawberry flavors contain a layer of fruit filling in the middle.
For a more savory on-the-go snack, our team loves the protein-packed Epic Provisions Bars. Currently available in 10 flavors, these meat bars were noted for being paleo-friendly, great tasting, and easy to eat.
Depending on the flavor, each bar contains 90 to 130 calories and seven to 12 grams of protein.
We find Epic bars best to eat either when it’s cold out or you’re moving slower, like in a very long ultramarathon — basically at times when your gastrointestinal system isn’t already being worked to its maximum and when it can digest these bars’ protein. We also love the sating feeling these bars offer during long days on the trail, when carbohydrate-based food sources just don’t make your stomach feel full.
Nature’s Bakery Fig Bars are a popular go-to snack at iRunFar because they’re made with a simple list of wholesome ingredients, and they taste great. The original fig bars are made with whole-wheat flour, fig paste, cane sugar, brown rice syrup, canola oil, whole-grain oats, and a few other ingredients.
The other bar flavors incorporate additional fruits, such as blueberry jam or peach apricot jam. Nature’s Bakery also makes a gluten-free fig bar in blueberry, raspberry, or pomegranate flavors.
When we need more than a quick snack, we reach for Probar Meal Bars, which provide nutrient-dense calories from nuts, seeds, and fruit (370 to 400 calories in one bar) as well as eight to 12 grams of protein.
Because these bars are relatively dense and packed with slow-burning energy, we opt for this as a between-running snack rather than during our runs.
Clif Bars have been a leader in endurance fuel for 30 years and they are still on iRunFar’s list of favorite bars.
We love this classic bar mostly pre-run and between workouts as a source of oats, nuts, seeds, and fruit that provides a mix of healthy fats, carbohydrates, and protein. These bars do an excellent job of making you feel sated for a couple of hours while still giving you a steady supply of carbohydrates for sustained high activity levels.
In particular, our team loves the Chocolate Chip and White Chocolate Macadamia Nut flavors.
Favorite Long Run Treat: Peanut M&Ms and Snickers Bars
For a sweet and crunchy snack, we love Peanut M&Ms. Are they made with the highest quality chocolate? No. Are they commonly found at aid stations and do they provide a not-too-sweet crunch with a hint of nostalgia? Yes and yes.
A close runner-up is a Snickers bar, specifically the bite-sized minis, which are also among the typical offerings at aid stations. An unfortunate caveat for both of these is that they will melt on hot days.
Favorite Long Run Treat Runner-Up: Sour Patch Kids
Rounding out the candy category are Sour Patch Kids. While they may lack the electrolyte balance offered in standard endurance chews and blocks, they are arguably more fun to eat — especially if you stack them in rainbow order and eat them like a sandwich.
Favorite Long Run Treat Honorable Mention: Cheez-Its
For a salty snack, we love Cheez-ItⓇ crackers. Note the “Ⓡ” — we’re being brand-specific here. While some crackers can turn to cardboard in a runner’s mouth, there’s something about the combination of greasiness and crunch that makes these crackers taste just right, whether you opt for the Original, Extra Toasty, or White Cheddar flavor. Sorry, organic cheese crackers — when it comes to salty, cheese-flavored running snacks, Cheez-its are at the top.
Favorite Aid Station Fare: Potatoes, Broth, Chips, and Pickles
If you like to run far, there’s a good chance you also like cooked potatoes dipped in salt. That’s why they’re a staple at every trail and ultrarunning event and a top choice among iRunFar’s editorial team. The starchy carbohydrates found in potatoes provide quick energy while salt replenishes the electrolytes we lose in our sweat. Salt and Vinegar Krinkle Cut Kettle Brand potato chips also ranked at the top of the iRunFar editorial team’s list of favorite salty foods.
Runners-up in this category include pickles, olives, bacon, pierogies, and of course, ramen and its brothy variations. Like other salty foods, broth helps to replace electrolytes and other minerals that are lost through sweat during long endurance activities. Plus, it tastes great — especially after consuming more sugary sources of fuel for several hours — and it can feel extra nourishing in foul weather or in the middle of the night during longer races. If you’re already a big fan of broth, consider trying “Witch’s Brew,” a double-strength chicken broth.
Favorite Aid Station Fare Runner-Up: Any Food Made with Tortillas
As runners, we love to eat easily digestible foods rolled up in a tortilla, such as hummus and kalamata olives or turkey, avocado, and cheese. Another iRunFar fueling favorite in the tortilla family is the cheese quesadilla, which is commonly offered at aid stations in ultra races to provide the comforting warmth of melted cheese to tired runners. Additional favorites at iRunFar include the classic peanut butter and jelly on a tortilla or a sweeter variation with Nutella and sliced bananas.
Favorite Aid Station Fare Honorable Mention: Popsicles
Popsicles are another refreshing source of quick energy that can help cool us down during a hot race or at least deliver a little joy (because who can resist smiling while holding a popsicle?). Otter Pops are often a coveted aid station offering at hot races, though for most of us, any combination of frozen water and sugar will do just fine.
What We Eat When We Can’t Eat Anymore: Our Hopes and Dreams
When asked what the iRunFar team eats at this point, one of our editors said it best: “My hopes and dreams.” Melodramatic as it may seem, you’re probably smiling and nodding if you’ve been in such a state of discomfort, where nothing stays down — or if you’re like me, you lay face down on the trail and tell your pacer to just leave you there.
What We Eat When We Can’t Eat Anymore Runner-Up: Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Ginger Ale, Root Beer, and Beer
Carbonated drinks like Coca-Cola or Pepsi are popular among endurance athletes late in a race for providing a boost of quick-burning sugar and caffeine, along with some refreshing fizziness to help settle the stomach. At iRunFar, ginger ale, root beer, and even beer are go-to options late in a race when other fuel options are no longer palatable.
What We Eat When We Can’t Eat Anymore Honorable Mention: Watermelon
Watermelon, like popsicles, offers sweet refreshment with minimal chewing, making it a good choice when standard aid station fare and everything in our packs all sound revolting. Though it doesn’t provide a lot of calories, watermelon offers nutrients like potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A and C. It can also help with hydration. Better than eating your hopes and dreams, eh?
For rapid rehydrating and refueling, the iRunFar team has a few favorite recovery drink mixes, including the Skratch Recovery Drink Mix. This mix uses a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein to kickstart the post-run recovery process after a hard effort, long run, or race. Skratch’s mix is essentially sweet milk with the addition of lactase to aid in digestion and probiotics to support gut health and recovery. It’s available in chocolate, coffee, horchata, and vegan chocolate flavors. Each serving provides eight to 10 grams of protein and 34 to 40 grams of carbohydrates, depending on the flavor.
For a vegan and dairy-free option, Tailwind Recovery Mix comes in Vanilla, Chocolate, Salted Caramel, and Coffee flavors. Like other recovery mixes, it contains about a 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio (all flavors have 43 grams of carbohydrates and 10 grams of protein per serving). Tailwind supplements organic rice protein with all nine essential amino acids to provide a complete protein that the body needs to rebuild muscle. The recovery mix also contains sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium to replenish electrolytes lost through sweat.
The Gu Roctane Protein Recovery Drink Mix has a higher protein-to-carbohydrate ratio than other mixes, with 20 grams of protein per serving alongside 30 grams of carbohydrates and 230 milligrams of sodium for restoring electrolytes. Additionally, Gu uses fast-acting and easily digestible whey protein in its recovery mix — making it gluten-free but not vegan. Gu’s Roctane Protein Recovery Drink Mix is available in two flavors: chocolate and vanilla.
Favorite Recovery Foods: Smoothie Bowls, Burger, Fries, and Pizza
Depending on our post-run mood, the iRunFar team may opt for a sweet and refreshing recovery meal like a smoothie bowl that combines our favorite fruit, yogurt, nut butter, or greens, topped with hemp seeds, chia seeds, coconut flakes, cacao nibs, and other ingredients. Most of these toppings also taste great on top of a piece of whole-grain or gluten-free toast.
Alternatively, we may opt for a protein- and carbohydrate-packed meal like a burger to satisfy our hunger and nourish our depleted muscles. For some of us, it’s all about delicious, salty comfort foods, whether that’s a basket of fries, pizza, pad see ew, or mac and cheese.
Not technically a recovery food, the ever-classic shower beer deserves a spot on our list — preferably an ice-cold Bud Light Chelada or Miller High Life — whatever it takes to replenish our bodies and spirits so we remember how much fun we had, forget how much it hurt, and start counting down the hours or days until we can get back out there.
Call for Comments
- How do you prefer to fuel before, during, and after your runs, workouts, or races?
- Do you have a variation or alternative to something we listed? What other running foods should we try?
- Use the comments section to share your favorite running foods!