Nutrition for Trail Runners
From before your run, to during, to after…We tested the goods.
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Fueling yourself for trail running adventures is slightly different from fueling for road running miles, and here’s why: If you’re running notably rugged terrain or particularly hilly trails, or mountain trails with scenic views, you’re moving more slowly than you would be on a road run. You’re maybe even stopping now and again to snap a photo, walk slowly on a log across a creek, or simply just to take in your surroundings. The slower pace gives your digestive system more time to process foods, and dig into packets of things that are fun to eat on a trail, like energy chews and nut butter packets—items that can be hard to eat and digest during faster-moving road runs.
Plus, if you’re driving any notable distance to a trailhead, you’re able to consume fuel en route to your run, and ingest fuel for recovery on the return trip.
Nutrition likes and dislikes—both related to flavors and consistencies, and what works and doesn’t with your digestive system—is highly personal. Trial and error is recommended.
That said, here are some of our favorite fueling items from the past few months of testing and trail running, trail running and testing.
Honey Stinger Bag Mini Waffles | $7.39
This 5.3-ounce resealable bag full of delicious Mini Waffles makes nibbling a mini-breakfast on the way to the trailhead a cinch. A serving size of three lil’ waffles packs 130 calories (and 1 gram of protein) of quickly digestible energy. They’re extra delicious when eaten while alternating with coffee in a to-go mug, by the way. There are 18 grams of carbohydrates and 9 grams of sugar per certified organic serving.
Flavors: Vanilla; Honey.
Kate’s Real Food Bars | $3
Made from all organic ingredients and tasting like someone made them in their kitchen the night before—which is sort of true, as founder Kate Schade first created her “Tram Bar” to fuel her skiing in Jackson Hole before sharing with friends—these bars are welcome morning fuel en route to trail adventures. The bars break off easily for small bites, and are filled with all sorts of good things.
Flavors: Lemon Coconut & Ginger; Peanut Butter Milk Chocolate; Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate; Peanut Butter Hemp & Flax; Dark Chocolate Cherry & Almond; Mango Coconut.
Honey Stinger PLUS+ Performance Chews | $2.50/pack (7 chews)
We’re fans of Honey Stinger’s original Chews, but these caffeine-induced Plus+ Performance Chews can help wake you up before your run—a sleeve of seven chews packs 75mgs of caffeine and 155 calories of energy plus electrolytes. These chews work great mid-run as well, and we love the new sleeve design for easy carrying in a pack or even in shorts/tights pockets. They’re certified gluten-free and also contain 27 grams of carbohydrates and 26 grams of sugar.
Flavors: Stingerita Lime; Lemon Ginger; Mango Melon.
DURING TRAIL RUNNING
Skratch Labs Energy Chews | $2.50/pack (10 chews)
If you like the idea of a sugarcoated gumdrop (but softer) that’s specifically formulated to fuel your endurance efforts, here you go: These energy chews are the brainchild of Skratch Labs founder, sport scientist Dr. Allen Lim, and they’re delicious. The brand prides itself on real ingredients, and these are made from real fruit and fruit juice, plus ingredients like sea salt (for the 80mg of sodium), tapioca syrup (12g sugar), and citric acid. They contain 70 calories and 18 grams of carbohydrates per serving, with two servings per bag.
Flavors: Sour Cherry (50mg caffeine); Orange; Raspberry; Matcha Green Tea & Lemon (natural caffeine from green tea).
GU Liquid Energy Gel | $2/pack
If you’ve been adverse to the consistency of gels in the past, but like how quickly and easily they digest and absorb in your bloodstream, GU’s new Liquid Energy Gel may be your answer. These packs taste like pulp-less juice with a punch. They’re 100 calories each, with 23 grams of carbohydrates (7g of which are sugar), and contain 75mg of sodium plus Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs). Though liquid, the vegan and gluten-free Energy Gels are not intended to replace hydration needs.
Flavors: Lemonade (caffeine-free); Strawberry Banana (caffeine-free); Coffee (40mg caffeine); Orange (20mg caffeine).
GU Salted Lime Chews | $2/pack (8 chews)
These notably salty chews pack 80 calories per four pieces, with 8 pieces and 160 calories per pack. They’re more calorie-dense than some other chews we’ve tested, while also providing quite a bit of sodium (125mg per serving, which is good for particularly sweaty runs) and Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) said to help ward off mental fatigue and decrease muscle damage. They have a somewhat sticky consistency, but are nicely candy-like in flavor, which can be welcome mid-run. Contains 20 grams carbohydrates and 10 grams sugar per serving.
Trail Butter Lil’ Squeeze Packs | $6/3-pack
These delicious vegan flavors have an interesting backstory: While riding a bike from Germany to California, sailing across the Atlantic in between, Trail Butter founder Jeff Boggess wanted to scale down the amount of food containers he was lugging with him. His combined concoctions inspired both the concept of what the company calls “trail mix + nut butter” in Trail Butter. Each packet delivers 5 grams of protein and 200 calories, 8 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams of sugar, and has a less-dense consistency than other nut butter packets we’ve tried.
Flavors: Dark Chocolate and Coffee (15mg caffeine); Maple Syrup and Sea Salt; Original Trail Mix.
Clif Bar Caffeinated Bloks and Gel Bundle | $25.20
New from Clif Bar comes this 12-pack bundle, comprised of the following: 4 packets of CLIF BLOKS Energy Chews (Black Cherry with Caffeine); 4 packets CLIF SHOT Energy Gel Double Expresso with Caffeine; 4 packets CLIF SHOT Energy Gel Strawberry with Caffeine. The chews pack 100 calories, 50mg of caffeine, and 50mg of sodium per serving. Gels pack 100 calories, 24-25mg carbohydrates (flavor-depending), and 100mg caffeine. These caffeinated goods work pre-run as well. We found the Bloks more enticing pre-run than the gels.
Skratch Labs Anytime Energy Bar | $2.45/bar
It can be near impossible to ingest a bar in the middle of a road run, but a long mountain run at a casual pace? And a bar with a great, real-food consistency that goes down easy? Skratch Labs Anytime Energy Bars come in both sweet and savory flavors, and are made from a nut butter base, with whole grains, nuts, fruit, and coconut nectar. They’re smaller (read: more portable) than most bars, but pack all sorts of great nutritional goodness to help fuel a run: 220 calories, with 8-10 grams of fat and 4-6 grams of protein; 27-33 grams of carbohydrates and 8-11 grams of sugar.
Flavors: Peanut Butter & Strawberries; Raspberries & Lemons; Parmesan, Sun Dried Tomatoes & Black Pepper; Chocolate Chip & Almonds; Cherries & Pistachios; Ginger & Miso.
Tailwind Nutrition REBUILD Recovery | $3/single-serve pack
Made with organic rice protein and amino acids that combine for a complete protein (patent-pending, no less), this powder packs a punch for repairing muscles and restoring energy. We also found it easy to mix with water, shake, and drink post-run… and best of all, we think the chocolate flavor is downright delicious. The powder also packs 43 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of fat from coconut milk, and 442mg of sodium along with its 10 grams of protein. We felt notably better—more alert, less exhausted—on days post-run after ingesting REBUILD than not. And not to mention it’s non-GMO, gluten-free and vegan.
Flavors: Chocolate; Vanilla; Coffee (80mg caffeine).
Clif Bar Sweet and Salty: Chocolate Peanut Butter with Sea Salt Bar | $1.45
After a run, digging into this new flavor from Clif Bar can hit the spot with its chocolate-y, peanut butter-y and salty combination of satisfying goodness. The bar packs 260 calories, 8 grams of fat and 10 grams of protein to help you recover. The 350mg of sodium replace electrolytes lost through sweat.
Justin’s Dark Chocolate Crispy Peanut Butter Cups | $2.29
Indulging in some dark chocolate peanut butter cups tastes pretty darn good after a long run on trails, and these Justin’s cups, with crispy, toasted quinoa on top are delectable. Fourteen grams of fat (7g saturated fat) stick to your ribs, while 15 grams of total sugars isn’t all that much for how sweetly delicious these cups are… Chalk that up to the richness of dark chocolate and the goodness of peanut butter. They also have 120mg sodium and 19g total carbohydrates (with 2g fiber) per serving.