Potatoes for race nutrition

Rethinking Race Nutrition

How many sports gels do you throwback during a race? One, two, ten? Let me ask you, have you ever thought about what sports gels might be doing to your gut? In case you didn’t know this: whole foods can fuel your run just as well as energy gels do. Here is why you need to start leaving your energy gels at home and give whole foods a try.

So if energy gels aren’t the key race-day nutrition, then what is?

Well, I was recently browsing around and found an interesting post that mentioned potato puree as their endurance fuel. This article said the puree being just as good as energy gels when fueling a 2-hour cycling effort at about 60-85% of their maximum effort.

Yep. They used plain old potatoes. I bet you never thought you’d hear anyone suggesting this as a nutritious race food, did you?

Since I’ve been exploring different ways to change up my running nutrition – while also avoiding the use of energy gels – coming across potato puree certainly made me start digging a little deeper.

Wait, what’s wrong with energy gels? 

When used in the right setting, energy gels may be ok for some, but we know there are certain drawbacks for many of us. And most of the time, we believe the symptoms are just something we have to deal with in a race. 

That’s not true! You can always improve your GI distress symptoms – especially on race days. 

First, the form of sugars included in energy gels is often the most highly processed out there! Go on, turn around your gel pack and try and read the ingredient list. Can you pronounce any of them? If you are gluten-free like me, beware that some of those long weird names may be wheat derivatives.

Second, you’re probably not throwing back these gels in your regular (hopefully healthy) life routine, so how can you expect your gut to react positively to them while running? Your gut and your microbiome are sensitive to the foods that you consume. Even a single meal can change the diversity of the microbe population living inside you. And sugar often nudges it in the wrong direction.

If you’re having trouble using gels when you run, there could be many reasons. Fungal overgrowth can wreak havoc when you start introducing sugar (especially high levels of it). The gels may even be causing dehydration by drawing water from your blood! Both situations are pretty bad.

Using whole foods for
running nutrition

Eating a diet rich in whole foods has become pretty mainstream. And for obvious reasons, this is a great thing. Professionals have debunked those “heart-healthy” sugar-packed cereals and instead sub them for whole fruits and veggies.  

So why do we ignore this fact when we fuel ourselves for a race?

I will concede that sugar is not bad when your body is utilizing it during a heavy endurance event like running or cycling. It’s an excellent source of energy that is readily available. 

The issue comes about when you isolate these sweet compounds and refine them from their natural form. They tend to have different, unwanted effects on the body, such as weight gain, diabetes, and the onset of fatty liver disease. When you think about it, this makes sense because mother nature didn’t design food that way.

Potato puree

So, I mentioned the potato study at the start, which suggested that a more substantial amount of potato was required to provide the same energy as the sports gel. Since the potato is still in its complete form, it contains more than just carbohydrates. It contains nutrients like potassium, vitamin C, folate, and Vitamin B6. Multiple nutrients paired together often have a more significant effect in the body, making whole foods a better choice for nutrition.

Another interesting fact about potatoes is the formation of resistant starch as it cools off. Resistant starch is not digestible, which may sound like a bad thing until you discover that this is the perfect fuel for good bacteria in your gut. So not only are you fueling your race, but you’re also building a better microbiome! 

The study compared the gut inflammation in blood markers and found that the level of gut inflammation was higher when using energy gels than when using the potato. It’s not too surprising considering sugars have been shown to aggravate the gut

This study wasn’t all bells and whistles. Objectively, the participants using the potato noted more gas and flatulence than the energy gel group. A preexisting adaptation to energy gels may explain this or the inadaptation of the potato. But that is only speculation on my side.

Should you grab a roasted potato for your next race? 

Possibly. But it’s always best to try out your nutrition plan on your training runs first. 

Only eating potatoes may be going a bit overboard, too. It could be a good idea to mix different types of whole food, which are higher in carbs but low in fiber, like potatoes.

If potatoes aren’t working for you, rice is another excellent option. It’s possible to make sweet sticky rice balls and wrap them in greaseproof paper for a whole food option on the move.

If you’re going for a longer run, it might be a good idea to add some fat. I discuss this more on the post “What to Eat When you Run,” where I suggest creating a trail mix that is easy to eat on the move and balances a lot of nutrients for optimum nutrition.

Ultimately, find which carby food combo works for you. Try things out. Just remember, whole foods are so much better for you!

Making Potato Puree

Don’t mistake this for mash potato because you want a slightly moister consistency. Using more water, or adding a little olive oil will help with this. 

  1. Chop the potatoes in half or quarters depending on how quick you want them to boil.
  2. Place in a pan and boil in salted water. Make sure the water level is above the potatoes.
  3. Cook until a fork smoothly glides into the potatoes.
  4. Drain and leave potatoes to cool
  5. Mash with a fork, adding oil, salt, or any flavor you desire

If you don’t like the taste of potato by itself, try mixing in a cooked carrot or sweet potatoes, which give a slightly sweeter flavor.

Using puree on the run sounds good until you think about how you’ll consume it. A good option would be to find some reusable squeeze packets. Like the packets baby food comes in. It allows you to eat quicker on the move and means you don’t need a spoon. 🙂

So what do you think? Have I convinced you to throw a potato in your pack for your next epic adventure? 

Test it out. Swap one of those gels out, and see how it goes. You may be surprised. 

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6 Comments

  1. I’m a ultra/trail/skyrunner myself and I have definitely thought about what’s happening in my gut and I’ve heard and read tons, but potato puree is a first! I love it. What a brilliant idea. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    • Yeah, it’s interesting. I’m not 100% sold, but it’s certainly got me thinking. I usually just use dried fruit and nuts anyway.

  2. I remember I think cliff made a whole foods sports puree for a while. For me I crave sugar while I run, but maybe I should try potato on a practice and see how I like it!

  3. I’ve been playing around with race nutrition too since, after 20+ years of marathon racing I’ve been having difficulties. I’m not even sure if it’s my nutrition but I figured it couldn’t hurt to make some changes. I haven’t tried potatoes, though the idea intrigues me (and I’m a potato lover!). I’ve used dates blended with some chia seeds and citrus, and that has worked well. I’m also trying to add a little bit more protein and fat to my fuel. I carry some almonds with me (I should probably blend them but that seems to be a little too much trouble for me 🙂 ).

    • That’s great! I go the same way with fuel. I usually carry dried fruit and nuts. They may not give you as good a hit as the sugary products, but at least your gut won’t be flipping.

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