Fuel doesn't have to come in the form of gel or protein bar. By making your own endurance eats, you'll be arguably more energized wherever your adventures take you. Photo: jacoblund / iStock
A year ago, I solved an energy crisis. I had signed up for a 24-hour, unsupported, military-style team endurance event that would involve carrying hundreds of pounds of gear over 50 miles, a bit of swimming, and a thousand or so burpees tossed in for good measure. All things considered, I would burn just north of 15,000 calories during the event.
As I stood scanning the energy bar aisle at my local outdoor store, I realized that carrying even half my calorie requirements in my favorite bars, at $3.50 a pop, would run me $73.50—half the cost of feeding a family of four for an entire week.
I decided to improvise and pointed my truck toward a nearby discount grocery store. There, I considered my needs: a huge amount of calories in a small package and, preferably, something tasty. I grabbed peanut butter, jelly, and a seedy wheat bread—and some thin-sliced mozzarella, because why not. The resultant sandwich, while admittedly strange, packed in more than 30 grams of protein—the magic number for refueling working muscle, according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association—and nearly 700 calories. Yet it took up no more room in my pack, cost just 80 cents each, and was truly delicious. The math: per calorie, the bars would have been ten times more expensive.
Figuring out what the hell to eat is a common dilemma for anyone who’s ever gone for a long run or ride or embarked on a multiday adventure. Sure, energy bars and goos are quick and convenient, but after a while, the awful taste and high sugar content can wreak havoc on your stomach. Instead, with a little planning, you can make some killer DIY endurance eats at home—just as packable but infinitely better-tasting and cheaper.
With the help of Trevor Kashey, Florida-based registered dietitian and owner of Relentless Dietetics, and Rachele Beck, a nutritionist based in Utah’s Wasatch Front—as well as a few ultra-athletes—we developed seven endurance recipes packed with high-value nutritional-impact ingredients that are easy on your stomach and so tasty you might even eat them when your heart rate is below 100 beats per minute.
The average American consumes 1,500 PB&Js before graduating high school. And with two simple tweaks—swapping peanut butter for cashew butter and jelly for mashed banana—the classic pulls double duty as an ideal endurance fuel. The only thing you shouldn’t tweak? The bread—stick to old-fashioned Wonder Bread. Wrap it in tinfoil, and force the malleable sandwich into any miniscule bag or pocket space you can find.
Why It Works: Bananas deliver the electrolyte potassium and an equal ratio of glucose and fructose, a combo researchers in New Zealand say can boost endurance and gut comfort. Cashews—one of the highest-carbohydrate nuts—pack in magnesium, a critical electrolyte that almost half of Americans don’t get enough of, according to a study in Nutritional Reviews. Why Wonder Bread? It’s cheap, fortified with vitamins and minerals, and highly processed, which means your stomach won’t have to work as hard digesting it compared to a whole-wheat, seedy bread. That’ll help you avoid GI issues.
How to Tweak It: Want a bigger protein punch? Stir protein powder into the mashed banana. If you’re on a budget, swap the cashew butter for regular old peanut butter, which drops each sandwich’s cost to 53 cents.
How To Make It: Simply make a sandwich with the following ingredients.
- 2 slices Wonder Bread
- 1 ripe banana, mashed
- 2 tablespoons cashew butter
Carbs: 53 grams
Fat: 20 grams
Protein: 9 grams
Price Per Serving: $1.20
Calories Per Dollar: 329
Banana, Egg, and Arrowroot Pancake
Most people who drop out of ultramarathons cite gastrointestinal issues, according to researchers at Gettysburg College. That’s because intense exercise pulls blood from your digestive system and shuttles it to your working muscles. Set up your breadbasket for success: harness the power of a root that man has been eating for 7,000 years and that scientists are now realizing has GI benefits.
Why It Works: Arrowroot, a starch made from the roots of several tropical plants, may reduce stomach issues, suggests a small study published in 2000 in the Brazilian journal Arquivos De Gastroenterologia. Eggs are a complete protein, meaning they contain the nine essential amino acids your body needs to function optimally, and offer less risk of stomach issues compared to dairy-based proteins, which appear in classic flapjacks.
How to Tweak It: Add an extra egg white to increase the protein content. Or slather your favorite nut butter or honey between pancakes to boost the calories. You can drop the cost to just 45 cents per serving by using regular white flour, if your stomach allows.
How To Make It: Mix the following ingredients into a batter. Pour the batter onto a hot pan and cook until done, flipping once.
- 1/2 cup arrowroot flour
- 1 ripe banana
- 1 egg
Carbs: 83 grams
Fat: 5 grams
Protein: 7 grams
Price Per Serving: $1.25
Calories Per Dollar: 318
I’ll never forget one of the best meals I’ve ever had: a cup of hot broth in a foam Dixie cup, handed to me by a race volunteer at the finish line of a cold October Jersey Shore half marathon. When you’ve spent the past hour or two pouring sweat, nothing beats salty, savory comfort foods. That’s what this turkey-and-beet wrap delivers, along with extra carbs and protein—plus bacon. Wind it tight and it’ll take up the same space as an energy bar.
Why It Works: Turkey delivers protein and endurance-boosting vitamins and minerals like B6, B12, niacin, choline, selenium, and zinc. Opt for the sliced deli variety, which has more salt (you’ll need it). The nitrates in beets may boost your endurance and improve blood flow, according to a study in the Applied Journal of Physiology, and white tortillas digest quickly.
How to Tweak It: If you’re working at a high heart rate, use two tortillas and reduce the turkey to one ounce. That ups the quick-digesting carbs and reduces the load on your digestive system. Toss in a handful of spinach for an antioxidant and potassium boost.
How to Make It: Construct a wrap using the following ingredients.
- 1 white tortilla
- 3 ounces deli turkey
- 2 to 3 sliced beets (from can)
- 1 slice bacon
Carbs: 32 grams
Fat: 10 grams
Protein: 20 grams
Price Per Serving: $1.40
Calories Per Dollar: 204
Performance waffles might be convenient, but they don’t have as much flavor, value, or protein as this at-home variety, which features honey, tofu, and timeless Eggo waffles.
Why It Works: Honey is nature’s energy goo. Researchers at the University of Memphis described it as a “cocktail of various sugars” that improved the performance of cyclists just as much as an expensive endurance goo. Tofu offers easy-to-digest, taste-free protein that’s high in the electrolyte calcium. Waffles are a secret weapon of endurance champions; the frozen variety is convenient and fortified with vitamins and minerals.
How to Tweak It: Use half the ingredient quantities for shorter efforts. If you can’t stand tofu, keep the protein high by subbing in a piece or two of thin-sliced, salty deli ham.
How to Make It: Simply make a sandwich with the following ingredients.
- 2 Eggo waffles
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 3 ounces firm tofu
Carbs: 63 grams
Fat: 11 grams
Protein: 14 grams
Price Per Serving: $1.22
Calories Per Dollar: 318
Rice and Ginger Balls
Ultrarunner Nickademus Hollon, who won the notoriously difficult Barkley Marathons in 2013 and has routine dealt with stomach issues, discovered these treats while testing out different on-trail foods. The secret ingredient? Ginger, which the Chinese have been using to aid digestion and treat upset stomach for more than 2,000 years. Hollon says the balls are cheap (this is the cheapest recipe here) and easy to make.
Why It Works: Sticky rice delivers an easy-to-digest endurance fuel. Science backs the ancient Eastern remedy—ginger can settle your stomach, say researchers in the UK, and may also relieve post-exercise soreness, according to a study in the Journal of Pain.
How to Tweak It: Splash a dash of soy sauce into the mixture to increase the salt content and to add the complex flavor of umami, a Japanese word that roughly translates to “deliciousness.” Or toss in some chopped pecans for a boost of high-energy fat and tasty texture. They’re the highest-antioxidant nut, according to a USDA study.
How to Make It: Mix the following ingredients together and shape into ping-pong-sized balls. Recipe makes about eight.
- 2 cups cooked sticky rice
- 1 ounce pickled ginger, chopped
Calories Per Ball: 48
Carbs: 11 grams
Fat: 0 grams
Protein: 1 gram
Price Per Serving: $0.12
Calories Per Dollar: 400
Avocados—once a rare, seasonal treat—are now mainstream. Sales of the fruit quadrupled from 2000 to 2015, and you can find them in grocery stores from Bangor to Beaverton and everywhere in between. And that’s a good thing for all you ketogenic converts. Mashed in a Ziploc with a little salt, avocado is the perfect packable keto fuel.
Why It Works: A medium avocado has 250 calories and 20 vitamins and minerals. Beyond endurance, the avocado’s general health benefits are stellar. Eight studies show that their fats can boost heart health and promote healthy aging. Sea salt contains more of the electrolytes and minerals you lose through sweat compared to regular salt.
How to Tweak It: If you’re not on the keto bandwagon but like the idea of an all-natural endurance paste, add carbs to the mash in the form of a slow-roasted sweet potato.
How to Make It: Dump all ingredients into a sealable plastic bag. Mash them together. Mid-endurance effort, bite off a corner the bag and squeeze the contents into your mouth.
- 1 medium avocado
- 1 pinch sea salt
Carbs: 13 grams
Fat: 23 grams
Protein: 3 grams
Price Per Serving: $1
Calories Per Dollar: 250
Consider these 13-ingredient bites as miniature power plants. Beck’s recipe takes a bit more prep work than the others on this list, but the magic is that the balls are designed to be made in bulk and frozen. Beck says her clients will grab a couple power balls from the freezer for shorter efforts or fill a sack for lower-intensity, multihour runs and rides.
Why It Works: The nut mixture delivers a huge amount of selenium and essential fatty acids, which are key for energy. Oats and honey offer complex, instant energy. Coconut counteracts inflammation. Indeed, with so many natural ingredients, your body won’t be missing much.
How to Tweak It: However you want. Beck says the best way to make these is to experiment with ingredients and flavors you love. For example, you could swap the honey for Grade B maple syrup or pitted dates, or add any nuts or ingredients you like, such as cocoa nibs, which pack in cardio-healthy polyphenols. You could also swap the almond milk for canned pumpkin, which is high in vitamin C and potassium.
How to Make It: Dump all the ingredients except the almond butter and almond milk into a food processor or blender and pulse. After a minute or two of pulsing, add the almond butter and almond milk, continuing to pulse until the mixture is sticky and moist. Shape the mix into small one-inch balls and place on a cookie sheet. Place the sheet in the freezer for a few hours.
- 1/2 cup oatmeal
- 1/4 cup cocoa powder
- 1 cups shredded raw coconut
- 1/4 cup flax seeds
- 1/4 cup chia seeds
- 1/2 cup raw pecans
- 1/2 raw sunflower seeds
- 1/2 cup any other raw nuts (cashews, pumpkin, almonds, macadamia, brazil, or hazelnuts)
- 3/4 cup hemp seeds
- 3 scoops plant-based protein powder (chocolate or vanilla)
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1 cup fresh ground peanut or almond butter
- 1/2 cup almond milk (low sugar)
Calories Per Ball: 81
Carbs: 3.6 grams
Fat: 6.6 grams
Protein: 3.1 grams
Price Per Serving: $0.25
Calories Per Dollar: 324