How I Ditched Energy Gels And Ran The Boston Marathon Using Only Dates

Believe me when I tell you that running and training for a marathon is not a pleasant experience.  The months leading up to it require unwavering commitment to the cause as you deal with pitch dark morning runs, nagging leg and foot pains, lost toenails, chronic blisters, relentless skin irritations, and constant worry about the state of your body.  As endurance athletes, it’s crazy what we do just to get to the starting line of a race.  

So why do we put ourselves through all of this suffering? Because in endurance sports, you get out exactly what you put in.  If you haven’t done the training, you will not perform well and if you want to get to the next level, you have to constantly improve the way you prepare for race day.  

Of course, a lot of this comes down to pushing yourself harder in your training sessions, but being able to do that requires that your body is ready to support your efforts.  Nutrition, therefore, plays a critical role in helping you extract more from your workouts.  This is not a huge secret and many athletes would even argue that the way you fuel up your body outside of your training sessions matters even more than the sessions themselves.

But what about during training and on the course?  Shouldn’t the same rules apply for the food that we put in our bodies while we are training and competing?  

I felt like there had to be a way to get the same effect that the gels provide by using real food that wouldn’t give me stomach pain.

I’ve often wondered why we train with some of the traditional energy products on the market.   Most of them are filled with stuff that endurance athletes wouldn’t dare touch were they not in the midst of training or competing.  Flip over the package on many of the name brand energy gels and bars and you will find high amounts of added sugars going by names like Maltodextrin, Brown Rice Syrup, Corn Syrup, Fructose, Maltose, Sucrose, Fruit Juice Concentrates, etc.  They are also stocked with other chemicals and preservatives that I usually try to avoid. Why is it that so many athletes invest so much time trying to avoid these ingredients off the trail, but are so quick to push them into their system while on it?  

About a year and a half ago, I started adopting more of a clean diet as I began training for the Boston Marathon.  It focused around eating real foods as close to their natural state as possible, with no added ingredients, chemicals, or preservatives.  However, even though I was eating extremely clean foods during the day, I was still using many of the gels and gu’s on the market while training even though all the added ingredients were giving me major stomach issues.

I felt like there had to be a way to get the same effect that the gels provide by using real food that wouldn’t give me stomach pain. 

So my wife, Kate, and I went to work on our own version of an energy gel.  The main nutrients I wanted were simple, natural sugars and carbohydrates.  We decided to use dates because they are packed with essential nutrients and taste delicious. We also kicked in a little Himalayan Sea Salt to help with hydration and cramp prevention.  We used a high speed blender to break down the dates into a gel and a device typically used for baby food to get the gel into pouches (See below for recipe and links to all the products we used). 

And just like that we had a natural, whole food, energy gel!  

The next step was to try it out.  I started using it on my longer training runs and found that my body felt just like it did using the chemical gels, but without any of the usual stomach pains.

All Natural Energy gel

I went on using the date gel for the next several months leading up to the Boston Marathon and noticed no dip in my performance.  The date gel was working great!  

Finally race day came, the true test.  Not only did I successfully complete the marathon, but I performed even better than I expected.  I thought I’d rank around 6,000 place but I ended up at 1,772.

This year, I am fortunate enough to be going back to Boston to participate in the 121st running of the marathon and I’ll be doing it once again using only dates for fuel!  You can follow my journey on Instagram.

Here’s how to make your own version of our date gel:  
1.    Let ~12 dates soak in water overnight
2.    Blend in a high powered blender (we used a Blendtech) with a pinch of sea salt
3.    Pouch using a pouching product like the Infantino Baby Food Squeeze Packs