real food nutrition for endurance sportsA gel, a sugary sports drink or a bar packed with synthetic ingredients is the last thing that some endurance athletes want to consume while they are training or even racing. It might be that their digestive system simply cannot cope, particularly over a long session or race. It might be that they resent paying for often expensive branded products, which may include unnecessary ingredients in small, ineffective amounts. Or it might be that they simply prefer eating foods that are in their natural form or at least minimally processed, such as a bar with all natural ingredients. If you are one of these athletes, then this blog post is for you.

Here are my suggestions for “real food” fuelling:

Fruit and dried fruit

Relatively cheap and widely available, fruit – particularly dried fruit – makes a good choice for athletes and is easy to carry in a jersey pocket or bento box. It’s probably best to replace the plastic packaging with a more robust small polythene bag that is less likely to tear. You can also take just the right amount with you to fuel your training session or race. Use the table below to calculate how much you might need. I’ve shown the amount of fruit required to provide 25-30g of carbohydrate, which is the equivalent of most gels. Bear in mind that the fruit will take longer to absorb than a gel, and that the fibre content might be too much during races for those with sensitive stomachs. It might also take a bit of chewing. Personally, I would not consume fruit or dried fruit during a race under 3 hours long, due to the increased difficulty in digesting and absorbing food at high intensity.


Type of fruit Serving size for 25-30g of carbs
Banana 1 medium or large banana (120-135g)
Raisins About 70 raisins – small handful (35g)
Medjool Dates 1.5 dates (36g)
Small pitted dates 5 dates (40g)
Dried apricots 5-6 apricots (30-35g)
Dried pineapple 1.5 rings (30g)
Banana chips 16 chips (50g)

Other food options

  • Nuts: probably best consumed in a ‘trail mix’ with dried fruit, as nuts are not a particularly good source of carbohydrates, with most of their calories coming from fat, which takes longer to convert to energy in the body. However, nuts make a great option on long bike rides where the intensity is relatively low and your body uses more fat for fuel. Coconut, which is particularly high in a type of fat that can be converted relatively quickly to energy (medium chain triglycerides), can work well here.
  • Rice cakes: plain, sweet or savoury. Choose the smaller ones for easy eating on the bike, as larger ones may crumble. About 75% of the calories in a rice cake come from carbohydrate.
  • Sandwiches: peanut butter or almond butter and jam is a fabulous combination. Choose white bread to minimise problems with fibre. Mashed banana and honey is another favourite of mine. Cut into bite-sized squares and wrap in foil.
  • Salted pretzels: you get 30g of carbs from a 35g serving. The salt helps to replace sodium lost in sweat on hot days.
  • Sweet potato: it sounds strange, but well-cooked sweet potato can be delicious while riding. Carry it wrapped in foil and squeeze into the mouth as you would a gel.

Making your own energy bars and balls

You can, of course, make your own energy balls and bars to use on training sessions. There are lots of recipes available on the internet. Make sure that you are aware of the carbohydrate and calorie content of each bar or ball, as some recipes are higher in protein and fat than carbs. Here’s one recipe that I like for training sessions: The carbs come from oats and honey, with the other ingredients being peanut butter and shredded coconut, with cocoa powder, vanilla extract and cinnamon for flavouring. I suggest leaving out the wheat germ as it is a source of fibre. Each ball gives you 144 kcals and 16.6g of carbohydrate, with 8g of fat and 4.6g of protein. There’s 52mg of sodium too. The recipe makes 12 balls, but you can easily adjust this. Click on the Servings button on the right-hand side. This also enables you to convert the ingredient list to metric measures if you prefer.

“Natural” sports nutrition options

While making your own sports nutrition to eat while training is a great option, it’s a bit time consuming and not always convenient. Luckily, there are a few companies out there who are making great quality bars with the sort of ingredients that you’d use to make your own – no maltodextrin in sight!

My favourite brand is Tribe: Founded a couple of years ago by three ultra-runners, Tribe offer seriously tasty energy and recovery bars, as well as trail mix and vegan recovery shakes. Their Trail Blazer bars (gluten free) are date and nut based, providing a pretty quick energy boost, while their Infinity bars are made from wholegrains, with a more savoury flavour and slower energy release (but not gluten free). All products are vegan. You can build your own weekly, fortnightly or monthly subscription box or order a one off mixed box of 18 products. Online purchases only.

I also like Primal Pantry: Their original Primal bars are grain free (a mix of dried fruit and nuts) and work well before or during easy workouts. Their newer Paleo Protein Bars, gluten free and vegan (they use hemp protein), are a great source of energy on longer sessions and to have as a recovery snack. All taste delicious, if very sweet, and are raw and cold-pressed. Available from some supermarkets, health food shops and online.

There’s also a company making alternatives to traditional gels. 33 Shake use chia seeds, coconut sugar and Himalayan sea salt to produce gel pouches which you fill with water, coconut water or fruit juice. Each gel provides 11g of carbs and 4g of fat, and lasts 24 hours after being prepared. They also make delicious, if expensive, recovery shakes containing a wide range of seeds, dried fruit and “superfoods”. Check out their website:

Making your own energy drink

If you want an alternative to commercial sports drinks, you can make your own. It’s important to get the amount of carbohydrate right: too much and your digestive system will be unhappy. Aim for around 6g of carbs per 100ml of fluid. This means that you need to dilute fruit juice 50:50 with water, as fruit juice has around 12g of carbs per 100ml. Good choices of juice are apple, cherry, blueberry, grape, pineapple or mango. It’s also a good idea to add some of the electrolyte sodium in the form of a pinch of table or rock salt – about 1/8 of a teaspoon (625mg) per 500ml of your drink, especially in hot weather. You can also use coconut water in place of plain water. This will provide additional electrolytes, particularly potassium, but ber in mind that coconut water has very little sodium so you still need to add salt. Coconut water also contains some naturally occurring sugar (about 4g per 100ml), so you need to use less fruit juice if combining the two. I suggest 2/3 coconut water, 1/3 fruit juice.

If you are a fan of real food fuelling, I hope you have found this blog post helpful and perhaps given you some new ideas to try.

Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sportBased in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting onetoone consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit