Even before I sucked down my first ketchup packet of the workout, I knew I had fallen for a dumb publicity stunt by Heinz. But as a Pittsburgher, I am required to take Heinz ketchup seriously. I can get the stuff to slide easily out of any glass bottle, I won’t eat Hunt’s, and I refuse to call Heinz Field by whatever the hell its new name is. And so, also being a runner, I am the perfect target market for Heinz’s new gimmick: convincing athletes to use packets of ketchup as fuel.
Heinz announced in a video that they are creating keystone-shaped running routes in major cities, dropping the maps on running apps like Strava and MapMyRun, to help runners access ketchup packets on the go. (The Heinz label is in the shape of a keystone, in case you haven’t noticed. Pennsylvania is the Keystone State. The local connection runs deep.) In the video, they claim that runners swear by ketchup packets to fuel on the go.
I’m a runner, and this was news to me. Not the idea of eating weird things while running; it’s normal to carry candy or gels for energy on very long runs, and in a marathon you might even be offered chips or Coke toward the end. Ultramarathons will sometimes have even more variety in the snacks they offer; people who run more than 26 miles end up with the weirdest cravings. So I asked an ultra runner I know whether he’s ever used ketchup packets on the run, or if he knows anyone who has. The response was simply: “lol no way.”
Why might ketchup make sense as running fuel?
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When you’re running, even at a fairly slow pace, your body burns through a lot of carbohydrates. Many of these come from glycogen, a form of carb storage in your muscles. You can add more carbs to the mix by eating sugary or starchy foods before or during your workout. Runners who carb up tend to feel better and run farther than those who don’t.
Fueling with carbs isn’t required for short runs—say, an hour or less. But if you’re running 10 miles on the weekends, or training for a marathon or a half, you’ll definitely get into the territory where gels can help. Gels are the most convenient way to get easy carbs on the run; they’re packets that contain a few tablespoons of a syrupy sludge (Gu is one appropriately named brand) that you can easily slurp on the go.
We also lose sodium and other electrolytes through sweating, and some gels contain electrolytes as well. Or you can replace your electrolytes by drinking something like Gatorade or Tailwind. Marathoners (like our own Meredith Dietz) will get their fueling strategy down to a science. For the best performance, it’s recommended to take in 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour; some athletes will aim for even more. Salt replacement depends on how much you sweat.
The reality: Ketchup does not make sense as running fuel
Ketchup prominently features corn syrup and salt, and it comes in convenient little packets. So it’s basically a gel, right? Let’s check the numbers.
- One packet of Gu is 100 calories, with 22 grams of carbs and 50 milligrams of sodium.
- One packet of ketchup is 10 calories, with two grams of carbs and 90 milligrams of sodium. Oh.
To get the same amount of carbohydrate as a single packet of Gu (which you’re supposed to take every 45 minutes or so) you would need 11 ketchup packets. This would, however, supply 990 milligrams of sodium.
If you go through, say, three Gus on a run, that would be 66 grams of carbs and 150 milligrams of sodium. If you go through 33 ketchup packets, you’d have the same carb intake with 2,970 milligrams of sodium. The recommended daily allowance of sodium is 2,300 milligrams. Athletes can safely have more sodium than the average person, since they’re sweating so much of it out. But still … that’s a lot.
I road-tested the ketchup packets
Undaunted by math or common sense, I set out to test how ketchup packets work in the real world. My original plan was to do a long trail run. But I was busy all day, and didn’t get a chance to go out until it was dark, so I headed for a short run at a well-lit local track. My husband had kindly picked up 20 ketchup packets for me from a store somewhere; I stuffed 10 of them into the pockets of my leggings and, somewhat reluctantly, headed out the door. “Have fun!” he called after me. I replied, simply: “I won’t.”
I have done a number of things over the years that one might call a bad idea. This definitely ranks among them. After running just one mile (in an attempt to work up an appetite, since we runners will eat things on the run that we would not touch in everyday life) I stopped to have a few packets.
My right side pocket was stuffed with ketchup packets; my left had an empty ziploc baggie for the trash. It takes 11 ketchup packets to equal one gel, after all, so that’s a lot of sticky little wrappers. I opened the first, and down the hatch it went. Tangy, salty, sweet. Definitely a change from the usual cloying gels. I put the empty packet in my trash baggie. Weird, but fine.
But I was only two grams of carbs in. I had to have another. And another. And another. After four packets I told myself I’d, uh, have the rest later. I got back on the track feeling…well, like a person who has just drunk four packets of ketchup. It was a heartburny feeling. I never have stomach issues with foods on the run, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.
I did not eat the rest later. I had had enough. Ketchup packets are too small, too salty, too acidic, and just generally too gross to stand in for your running fuel. But I am a bit curious about what it would be like to have just one ketchup packet, late in a run, after you’ve already eaten a bunch of gels and you’re craving something that has some flavor, like real food. Would I consider taking a ketchup packet alongside a regular gel? I probably would. And I would probably end up regretting that, too.