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By: David Saddler

How To Eat Real Food During Exercise

A few weeks ago I gave a presentation to my local triathlon club on how to fuel during endurance performance. As my conventional wisdom and training had me believe the go-to “food” for fueling endurance (biking, running, hiking, etc.) was gels, sports drink, and/or energy bars. This was until I was asked an interesting question during my seminar. One lady (who happened to own a running store) asked: “what are your thoughts on eating real food during long exercise?” I answered “sure, bananas have always been a classic choice”. She replied “No, I mean like homemade snacks such as rice with blueberries and chocolate mixed in, you know the stuff in Feed Zone Portables?” While I had heard of this book “Feed Zone Portables”, I had not read or investigated much into it. So I swallowed my pride (which for a triathlete, let alone a coach can be difficult) and replied “I’m going to need to do some more research before I properly answer your question”. That night after the presentation I ordered a copy of Feed Zone Portables off amazon and 2 days later I was laying on couch, soaking in the information in this book. After reading this book, experimenting with whole foods as fuel, and researching this concept more the following are my thoughts.


What’s most intriguing about using real food as fuel during exercise is how different real food actually is when compared to gels, bars, and sports drinks. Energy gels for example are typically made of a few different sugars (usually fructose and maltodextrin) some added color and flavor and bound together with a thickening agent (usually gellen gum or guar gum). Whereas rice is rice and blueberries are blueberries, together the ingredients are rice and blueberries! From a health perspective the lateral is obviously healthier, but does it help you perform as well? The following information can help you determine the answer to that question.

  • Water Content: When you take in just 1- 100 calorie gel or energy bar you must chase it down with a good amount of water in order your body to properly digested the gel or bar without dehydrating you. But real food (rice, baked goods, small waffles, etc.) has a higher water content, therefore less water is needed in the digestion process. Looking closer at the numbers Feed Zone Portables compared the water content of popular energy bars to the rice cakes the recommend making and found that the average sports bar is 7% water whereas the rice cakes are 66% water. While this may not seem very important, when you consider that dehydration is one of the number one causes of an upset stomach during a race, makes food with water already in it look more appealing.

  • Rate of Absorption: Compared to gels and liquid sports drinks, real food has a much slower absorption rate during activity. In other words gel or liquid calories get absorbed very fast providing immediate energy to the muscles Whereas real food is slowly absorbed providing steady energy over a longer period of time. Given that gels and liquids absorb quickly and real food absorbs slower, I recommend taking in a little of both. For example: Have a bottle of sports drink on a bike that you sip on in addition to eating real food.

  • Taste: One of the biggest challenge of ultra-distance endurance events (Ironman triathlons, century bike rides, and ultramarathons) that athletes face is overcoming the same sugary taste of gels, bars, and sports drink. I have personally witnessed people not finish Ironman triathlons simply because they couldn’t take into anymore sugar yet the desperately needed the calories. For the reason, there is a lot to said about great tasting food that you just happen to eat exercise. When going on a long bike ride for example, I would much rather eat a homemade gluten-free apple turnover then a pre-packaged gel simply because the former is delicious.


While real food is awesome during longer duration events at lower intensity, there is a good argument that real food may do more harm than good in an endurance event lasting less than 5 hours such as a half-ironman or olympic triathlon. During events of this duration athletes are typically swimming, biking, and running at moderate to hard intensity and simply don’t want to be unwrapping and chewing real food when they can slurp down 100 cal from a gel or sports drink instantly. Additionally seems shorter-duration events are finished in a couple hours, rate of absorption maybe be working against if you don’t absorb the calories before the race is over. Lastly besides ultra-runners who spend a good proportion hiking and not running, most athletes can’t  stomach solids foods when running. Runners and triathletes typically prefer small sips from a sports drink or gels as they are much easier to stomach when bouncing up and down during running.


As with many aspects of endurance sports, experiment with the eating real food in your training and see how it works for you. I personally loved how I performed on real food and the taste of it, but will I be taking some foil wrapped rice cakes with me on race day? Probably not. Simply because I will be racing mostly olympic and half-ironman distance triathlons and would much rather take in liquid calories I can sip easily during the high intensity event. As many athletes currently do, I recommend the athletes I coach eat real food in the base phase of training when intensity is lower, then as the race gets closer start practicing race day fueling with more traditional fueling methods.

If you’re interested in exactly what real foods to eat during exercise, I recommend grabbing yourself a copy of Feed Zone Portables or simply do some experimenting on your own with portable snacks. Leave what you come up with in the comments section below.

About Brad Haag

Brad is a certified USAT triathlon coach, a certified USAC cycling coach, and a certified NCSF personal trainer. Brad specializes in coaching endurance and warrior class athletes to peak performance. He can be found at HaagsAthletics.com.

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