As unappetizing as they might be, those slimy packets of quasi-liquid goo exist for a reason: They're a quick, portable, and relatively efficient way for runners to take in and digest calories and much-needed electrolytes that are lost during exercise. Different brands come in many different flavors and viscosities—some sweeter and thicker than others, some made with all-natural ingredients, some not flavored at all—so before giving up on them completely, be sure you've tried a wide variety of different kinds, advises Matt Fitzgerald, sports nutritionist and author of Diet Cults.
That being said, if you really can't stand any form of gel fuel—or if they all tend to cause you gastrointestinal distress—you do have a few other options. "Most athletes can hold their nose, so to speak, and swallow a gel whose taste or texture they don't like, but if they physically can't stomach a product, then they really can't use it," says Fitzgerald.
Your most obvious alternative is a chewy sports gummy, of which there are as many kinds as gels. These have a similar texture to gelatin candies, but usually contain a better balance of sugars, plus electrolytes like sodium and potassium. (JellyBelly even sells fitness-specific jelly beans, and SNAP Super Candy makes electrolyte-infused beans, gummies, caramel bites, and Sweet Tart–like tablets.)
It's also possible to get all the calories and nutrients you need from a sports drink, but you'd have to consume a lot, says Fitzgerald—probably more than you're used to sipping. "To maximize endurance performance, athletes need 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, and enough fluid to keep them satisfied," he explains. "Generally, when you consume a sports drink according to thirst, you don't get quite the optimal mount of carbs."
Real-food options are tricky, as well. Studies have shown performance-enhancing effects of consuming bananas, raisins, and coconut water during exercise, says Fitzgerald, but they generally don't quite match the benefits of engineered performance fuels. Whole fruits are risky because their fiber can cause stomach discomfort; the same goes for nuts and nut butters because of their high protein content. Bread or pretzels are a safer bet, but anything too chewy can impede your oxygen intake while on-the-go.
Bottom line: If your stomach is especially hardy—and you're willing to slow down or take breaks mid-run, you may be able to get away with eating real foods or snack bars typically reserved for cycling and hiking. (Hey, Dean Karnazes eats pizza and burritos during his ultramarathons!) Most runners, however, should keep trying until they find a sports drink, gummy, or gel that their tastebuds—and their stomachs—can tolerate.