The Late Great Date and the Long Run Fuel Debate

date 1

Photo credit: Wes Kriesel

Recently, I’ve been reading Finding Ultra, vegan ultramarathoner Rich Roll’s   story of the journey from alcoholism and addiction to health and ultra-fitness, and I was inspired by his simple approach to nutrition to experiment with new foods on my long runs.

First, let me tell you about my short and non-illustrious eating-on-the-run history. When I put in miles training for my first LA marathon in 2011, I took food with me on every run over eight miles.  I would do an eight-mile loop off of Gage Canal and Victoria, and when I hit the halfway mark, I’d eat a Clif Bar (somewhere around 200 calories).  On my first marathon outing, I stuffed my pockets with Clif Bars (probably about 8 of them!) and ate one every hour or so during the race.  My time was 5 hours and 44 minutes, so conservatively I think I had at least five Clif Bars during the race, about 1000 calories.  I was SO scared of dying out there on the course from starvation.  Ha!

date 3

Photo credit: Wes Kriesel


After that first marathon, I tried to “toughen” up a bit and began to think about what I was training my body to expect.  I mean, if I trained my body to expect food every four or five miles, I’d start to expect and depend on that input, at least psychologically.   I stopped carrying food with me.  And, I stopped carrying water.  I used to have a water belt on every run over four miles.  Now, the interesting fact about getting faster, which happened to me slowly over time, is that your longer runs become shorter!  Instead of a ten mile run taking two hours, it could take me an hour and thirty minutes.  I got some solid advice from running coach Jenny Hadfield that I should drink water during runs that last longer than forty-five minutes, and I try to abide by that guideline, although I never take water with me anymore.  My strategy: plan runs that pass a drinking fountain, or another water stop, like a Starbucks.  I’ve always been able to go into a Starbucks on a run and get a free cup of water and I love them for that.  Besides, I’ve probably paid for my free cups of water many, many time over.  So, I don’t carry water and I plan sparing water stops that emulate race conditions.

And, now, I have started to think it’s ridiculous to carry a small grocery store with me on my runs, too.  Except I know that experts still recommend taking in 100-200 calories every hour of an endurance event and, as I toy with possibly running distances longer than 26.2 miles, I know that I can’t NOT eat during longer and longer runs.

date 2

Photo credit: Wes Kriesel

I thought I read somewhere that a vegan athlete & blogger was using dates on his long runs, but now I can’t find the exact source.  I do remember the ratio he recommended being two to three dates every hour with some water.  I’ve tried this twice now on fourteen mile runs and can report that it’s amazingly effective, at least for me, at the long run pace I’m currently training (9:30-10:30 minute miles).  The benefit is that six dates weigh scarcely more than one energy goo packet and take up very little room. That’s fuel for up to eighteen miles at a 10:30 pace.  And, additionally, no additives, preservatives, chemicals, or ingredients I can’t pronounce.

Many of the energy goo products are vegan, but I just feel better with simple dates.  They are convenient: I can buy a container of dates and they last; since no one in my family digs dates, a container can fuel three to six months of long runs.  Dates are simple to carry for me: placed in a ziploc sandwich bag folded over and stuffed into the “key”pocket in my running shorts.  That’s right – no extra belt needed to carry them.  I’m running lighter – without my water belt, water bottle (or bottles!) and extra energy gels – and since I’ve been consistent with my training – further and faster.

Here are some of the sources I’ve examined in preparation for this blog post:

Great article on what energy gels are, when and why to use them:

Did you know 75% of the U.S. production of dates is in the Coachella valley?

Comparison of energy gels shows a caloric density of 3.0 kcals/gram:

I calculate the date’s kcal/gram rating at about 2.7.

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