We have some news that will shock you: Next time you find yourself at a gas station looking for fuel for a mountain run or ride, the Snickers is way better for you than the almonds.
When you exercise hard, your body prioritizes powering your muscles and puts processes like digestion on the back burner. That helps you run fast, but it also gives your gut fewer resources to extract energy from the food inside it. More-refined foods—gummy bears, soda—have been processed beforehand, so breaking them down is simple and low effort. “If a food doesn’t require much digestion, your body can immediately start to absorb and use the nutrients from it, and that’s going to improve your performance more than anything,” says Trevor Kashey, an Ohio-based nutrition consultant.
Health freaks may balk at the idea of pounding ultra-processed foods, but science says that endurance activities buck the normal health trends. For any effort around two to four hours, studies suggest you should just take in water, sugar, and caffeine, repeating as needed, says Jose Antonio, editor in chief of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
But some snack foods are better at powering your run than others. We searched the aisles of a mini-mart in Alamo, Nevada—a town with an elevation that exceeds its population—and found these smart picks.
Instant Mashed Potatoes
Nickademus Hollon, an ultrarunner who won the brutal 2013 Barkley Marathons, told us he pockets a plastic bag of powdered instant mashed potatoes during runs and races. When he needs energy, Hollon pours some water into the bag, kneeds it with his fingers, then squeezes the mashed potatoes into his mouth.
Why It Works: Instant mashed potatoes are basically just potatoes that have been cooked, mashed, and dehydrated. You can consider potatoes the original superfood—they deliver high levels of vitamin C, which reduces muscle damage and decreases your heart rate, and potassium, critical for proper muscle function. Another upside to the potatoes: “The flavor is savory and salty,” says Hollon. “It’s a nice change from sugary energy options.”
Once you open a gel pouch, you have to finish it off or risk spillage in a pocket. Black licorice pieces allow you to moderate your dose. Eat just a handful for a small pick-me-up or a couple handfuls for a bigger boost.
Why It Works: Like many chewy candies, black licorice is mostly just sugar and corn syrup, two easy-to-digest substances. But black licorice is a comparatively better pick for endurance athletes, thanks to its salt content. Good & Plenty, one licorice brand, offers 120 milligrams of salt per serving, or 5 percent of your daily value. That’s in line with more traditional fueling options like Clif Shot Energy Gels, which have 90 milligrams of sodium, and PowerGels, which have 200 milligrams.
No, Red Bull doesn’t give you wings. But it’s still a solid grab that will almost certainly give your energy level a bump.
Why It Works: Pure sugar and a big dose of caffeine. Liquefied sugar is generally absorbed by your system faster than solid sugar, says Kashey. And caffeine can improve your endurance performance by 4.2 percent. The 8.4-ounce can is a great pick for slightly shorter efforts.
Yes, bananas qualify as a “whole food.” But they’re easy to digest, especially when ripe. And even the most remote mini-marts will usually have a few spotted bananas hanging near the checkout register.
Why It Works: Bananas are packed with vitamins and minerals. Their carbs are composed of an equal ratio of glucose and fructose, which research has found can improve your endurance and gut comfort. They also contain potassium, which prevents cramping.
“What you consume during endurance is first a matter of getting calories and personal preference,” says Antonio. Many people thrive on chocolate, simply because they love the taste of it and, therefore, will remember to eat it on the run. If that’s you, make Three Musketeers your go-to.
Why It Works: A Three Musketeers bar is filled with whipped chocolate—a substance that’s light, carb-packed, and low in fat—and it’s nut-free, so you aren’t asking your stomach to digest anything tough. Those qualities make it the optimal run-fueling chocolate bar.