Endurance athletes rely on high-sugar gels to refuel during long races. Recently, a controversial trend on social media has showcased runners swapping traditional gels for ketchup packets mid-run. Curious about whether this tomato-based condiment can truly serve as a viable fuel source for your extended runs? Let's delve deeper into the potential benefits and drawbacks of fueling up with ketchup during your next run.
Long-distance exercise causes glucose stores to decrease. Midway through a race, athletes need to refuel with high-sugar gels or their performance could suffer.
Ketchup is a tomato-based condiment usually served with French fries or grilled cheese. Although it contains sugar, it isn’t enough to replace running gels.
Cutting corners on your nutrition plan can negatively affect your athletic performance. If you're serious about running, it’s best to stick with evidence-based nutrition practices such as energy gels or chews.
Glucose metabolism in athletes
Carbohydrates are the number one source of fuel for your body. Every organ, tissue, and muscle cell relies on glucose molecules (simple sugars) to function. Your diet supplies cells with instant glucose, and your muscles have an energy reserve called glycogen stores.
While being active, you will burn through your immediate energy supply, and your muscles will convert glycogen stores into usable glucose molecules. However, these stores will eventually run out after prolonged exercise and must be replenished.
Athletes, especially runners, who exercise for long periods of time may need to refuel during their race. If they don’t, their performance could be negatively affected, and energy levels could dwindle before they finish their run.
A rule of thumb recommends that athletes who plan to run longer than two hours should refuel mid-run. Runner gels, sometimes called energy gels, are one of the most popular products because they’re light, portable, and highly concentrated with precious glucose.
Other popular refueling products include chews, which can be individual gummies or one elongated bar. The absorption rates are similar to a gel but not as quick, which may affect your decision.
Although sizes vary, most energy gel packets contain 28–45 g of glucose. A dietitian specializing in sports nutrition can tell you exactly how many packets you’ll need for your race. Research suggests that one package every 30–40 minutes after the two-hour mark is sufficient for most runners.
Fuel up with ketchup for running
Heinz (a household name in the ketchup industry) recently ran an ad campaign to market their product to runners. The campaign included videos and social media posts that received much attention from the sports nutrition community.
A video ad shows runners eating ketchup mid-run to refuel during a workout. Their theory is the sugars in their product will refuel athletes by replenishing glucose stores so they can keep exercising. Some of their social media images featured a map with a Heinz logo-shaped running route. The message states, “Heinz is hard to find on the go, so we created Heinz keystone-shaped routes marking restaurants that carry Heinz packets.”
Unfortunately, the sugar content of a ketchup package is too low to refuel an athlete. One ketchup package is much smaller than a runner's gel and only contains 2g of sugar. An athlete may need to consume upwards of 15 packets to meet their needs during a long-distance run.
At that quantity, the high sodium content in ketchup hinders potential benefits, and overall, they aren’t a great choice for long-distance runners.
What to use instead
The number one recommendation to refuel is an energy gel or a chew. If you can’t find any, you may substitute easy-to-chew candies or several honey packets as a last resort. Chances are high that someone training for a long-distance run will bring adequate fuel (or their coach will), but sometimes people forget, and it’s good to know what you can use instead.
Other nutrition tips
Fueling before a race is vital for your athletic performance. If you plan to run for longer than 90 minutes, try adjusting your diet up to three days before you run. Include plenty of carbohydrates to fill your glycogen stores, and make sure to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
A few examples of carbohydrate-rich foods include:
- Whole grains
After running, your glycogen stores must be replenished again, and your muscles will benefit from protein-rich foods to start recovering. Keep your meals simple immediately after your race, and opt for a banana with peanut butter. If your appetite is low, try to take smaller bites over the next couple of hours post-race.
Building up to a long run takes time, and the best way to get there is to start training today. Although social media pushes running products and supplements every day, many of those things aren’t essential for new runners.
Instead of buying gels or electrolytes, focus on building a consistent running schedule and improving your form. Eventually, you’ll cross the 90-minute mark, and then you can think about adding refueling products to your routine.
- Nutrition Reviews. Fundamentals of Glycogen Metabolism for Coaches and Athletes.
- Frontiers in Nutrition. Carbohydrate Intake Practices and Determinants of Food Choices During Training in Recreational, Amateur, and Professional Endurance Athletes.
- Nutrients. Nutrition and Supplement Update for the Endurance Athlete: Review and Recommendations.