An Introduction to Energy Gels: The Who, What, When, Where, and Why

Post written by Doug Hay.

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Peanut butter? Mint chocolate? Espresso love? And that’s just one brand!

I will never forget my first energy gel.

It was junior year of high school, 10 miles into my first half marathon. I was a complete distance running novice, clueless as to what I was getting myself into. The entire race was spent mimicking the more experienced looking runners around me to figure out things like when to drink, when to make a move, and of course, when to grab this weird goo from one of the volunteers.

After watching others do the same, I grabbed the unusual packet and squeezed it into my mouth. It felt like I had just inhaled a mouth full of Nickelodeon’s green slime, and it didn’t taste much better.

Since then, gels have come a long way, and while they’re still pretty slimy, the taste and variety of flavors have certainly improved. But if you’re a new runner, the wide array of options and guidelines can be confusing. (And if you’re vegan, even more so.)

To understand anything, I like to start with the basics. Today that means covering the 5 W’s — who, what, when, where, and why — of energy gels, so that you can decide if they’re right for you and, if they are, understand a  little more about how to use them.

Who should take energy gels?

Before getting into the specifics of what and when, you should probably know if you really even need an energy gel.

As endurance athletes, we turn toward energy gels to replace the depleted carbohydrate energy stores burned at a fast rate during endurance exercise. Once those stores are fully depleted, the body starts using fat for energy, which metabolizes at a much slower rate. Because an athlete wants to burn energy faster, not slower, it is important to sustain your carbohydrate levels throughout the workout or race. Gels are formulated to do just that.

The body stores enough glycogen (carbohydrate energy) to last for an hour to an hour and a half of running. If your run is shorter than that, you’re probably not burning through your carbohydrate energy store to a point where you need to replace it. You’ll finish your workout with glycogen to spare, and you’ll be able to replenish what you expended through your normal diet.

If instead you’re working out for longer than an hour and a half, you may start to feel your body losing that energy and slowing down as you near that mark. It’s these workouts where you need to think about replenishing your carbohydrate stores, and gels are a compact, portable, and efficient way to do it.

What makes up an energy gel?

Energy gel companies combine a few main ingredients in most gels:

  • Carbohydrates — Not surprisingly, carbohydrates make up the majority of energy gel ingredients. For most gels, those carbs come in the form of maltodextrin, a highly digestible carbohydrate made up of rice, corn, and potato starch. More natural gels like Vega Sport and homemade versions are often based on dates, a high-glucose carbohydrate that quickly reaches the bloodstream.
  • Caffeine – It has been widely debated whether or not caffeine has a place in fuel for endurance sports. Some argue that it boosts your metabolism and can give you a psychological boost, while others say those benefits don’t outweigh the increased blood pressure, digestive issues, and the fact that it makes you have to pee. Energy gels companies cater to both sides of the debate by offering options with and without caffeine.
  • Blends — Amino blends, electrolyte blends, antioxidant blends, herbal blends, and vitamin blends are all very common ingredients in energy gels. Because each company has its own formula, it’s up to the athlete to decide what works best for his or her needs.

Are energy gels vegan? The simple answer is yes, most energy gels from the biggest brands are vegan. The big exceptions are Accel Gel, which uses a milk-based protein, and Honey Stinger, which contains, you guessed it, honey. PowerBar, Clif, and Hammer gels are all vegan-friendly. [Update to first publication: GU is not strictly vegan -- see discussion in comments.]

When should I take energy gel?

We all react differently to what goes in our bodies. For some people, the effects of an energy gel can kick in almost instantaneously. For others, it will take 15-20 minutes. By trying them out beforehand in training, you can get a feel for what your body needs.

Typically, gels are consumed about every 45 minutes to an hour. The typical carbohydrate recommendation for runners is 30-60 grams per hour, and since a typical gel packet contains 25-35 grams of carbohydrate, taking one every 45 minutes or so makes sense. But keep in mind that if you’re also drinking sports drink, you may be getting a lot of carbohydrate that way as well.

During marathons and ultras, I have had the most success with taking one gel every six miles, starting at mile 10.

Sound like a lot? It really all depends on the activity. I know some runners who will take one every 20 minutes during a 100-mile race! Experiment with different timing throughout your training and get a feel for what works best with you.

Where do I store them during a race?

Most larger half marathons, marathons, and ultramarathons will provide gels at some of the aid stations. During a marathon, you’ll generally find them around the halfway point and mile 20. I always recommend looking up aid station details before the race so that there are no surprises on race day.

For many people, the aid station opportunities don’t work out with their race plan. If that’s the case for you (or even just for emergencies), it’s important to carry a gel or two with you throughout the race.

I’ve had the most luck storing them in that little key pocket inside my running shorts. I can fit two Gus or ClifShots, or one PowerGel, in that little inner pocket. Thankfully, I have never had issue with chafing as long as I don’t try to over stuff.

Because I’m a man and in no way feel qualified to speak for women, I asked NMA’s resident triathlete, Susan Lacke, where she likes to store gels. In typical Susan fashion, her answer went straight to the lady parts:

Well, a woman’s fun bags seem like the perfect place, don’t they? I’ve stuck many a gel in my sports bra before, usually on the sides (they pop out when I put ‘em between my “girls!”). There’s a few downfalls of doing this, though. Foil packaging isn’t something you necessarily want rubbing against your skin, and there are sometimes sharp corners. I’ve actually given myself a scar on the side of one of my boobs from a gel wrapper, believe it or not! Then there’s also the issue of putting a warm gel into your mouth, one that’s been marinating in your armpit sweat. If you’re a boob carrier, look for sports bras like this one which have a built-in lined pocket for your gels, right in the front. Otherwise, look for women’s run wear that has generous lined pockets with zippers, like the Oiselle Roga short.

Why are energy gels effective?

It boils down to science. Your body burns sugar a lot faster than fat. When your sugar reserves are low and your body is turning to the fat to keep you moving, it’s going to drag you down. In the worst case, glycogen stores can get so low that the brain shuts down the rest of the body to preserve energy for its own functioning, and you have what endurance athletes so eloquently call a bonk.

Energy gels, jam-packed with carbohydrate sugars, will give you the boost of energy that, if timed right, will keep you from bonking during your race or long workout. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t always work — even when using energy gels, lows during a distance race are typical. The key is to figure out, through practice, how your body responds to different nutrition strategies so that when race day comes, nutrition will be one less thing you need to stress about.

Play around with different types of energy gels to figure out which formula your body takes to the best, and which flavors go down the easiest. Keep a journal of exactly what you eat before, during, and after your workouts, and use it to figure out what gives you the best results. Being properly prepared for your race could mean the difference between an experience of a lifetime and a miserable suffer-fest (like my first half marathon turned out to be).

And if the sliminess gels just doesn’t work for you, try out the energy gummies most companies are putting out. They’re a great substitute if you can’t stomach the gels.

What are your tricks? Do you look towards energy gels to give you that boost, or do you use a different type of fuel?

About the Author: Doug  Hay likes to keep a few energy gels at the office in case he has any extra-long meetings.  No sign of them actually helping him stay focused.  Check out his blog Rock Creek Runner, where you can sign up for the free Runner’s Guide to Washington, DC.

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Comments

  1. I personally prefer Clif Shots. They seem like they have the cleanest ingredient label of the bunch and don’t leave my stomach feeling icky during races. :)

  2. It is possible for one to train themselves to successfully burn fat and to not depend on glycogen stores. I never eat before or during training, no matter what the distance. My prerace dinner consists of the same fruits and vegetables that I always eat. On race day, I do not eat breakfast, nor do I eat anything during the first hour of the race. This gets me into fat-burning mode. After that, I use my own gel made of black-strap molasses and raw agave nectar. So far so good. This is what works for me.

    • Hey Eliot, I’m glad to hear that is working for you! You homemade gel sounds great, and thanks for bring this up.

      It is totally possible to train your body to burn fat in a sustainable way, especially for long slow distances like marathons and ultras. The problem comes with the shorter, faster distances.

      Matt wrote a post about this awhile back, which you might be interested in checking out. http://www.nomeatathlete.com/burning-fat-for-fuel/

      • Thanks Doug!

        • Much prefer sports drinks like Gatorade. I’ve also been known to bring iced coffee with me, complete with milk and plenty of sugar.

          Graham crackers and fig newtons are favorites of mine in the solids department. Other than portability I’ve never understood the benefits of gels over liquids and solids. I tend to stick with every day sugary foods and drinks during my workouts. Works for me!

          • Joe Kanaszka says:

            I think it comes down to a portability issue as well as the most bang for your buck when you weigh size vs calories of carbs. I’ve often thought of going the natural route myself and toting some Medjool dates or PB&J sandwiches. This would prob work for races like an ultra where you can actually sit down and eat for a few minutes. At least for me the last thing i need to think about during a 20 mile run is how I’m going to get 100 calories into my gullet every 45 minutes while trying to maintain a descent pace. At least for me the gels are just so convenient. But Fig Newtons do sound good!!

  3. I love Hammer Espresso gels. They taste like mochas, which for whatever reason is the flavor my body seems to want 15 miles into a long run. For me, the gels tend to act pretty quickly and effectively – within minutes, I usually feel better and more energized.

  4. Jon Weisblatt says:

    I like either Cran-Razz Clif Blocks, or Gu’s Espresso Love, chocolate, and tri-berry. I have Race Ready shorts with extra pockets. I’m a slow marathoner so I carry 6 or so with me, as there’s ussually someone during a race who’s asking if anyone has extra. One running buddy says I carry a smorgasboard with me. I’ll take one every 40-45 minutes during a race. It feels like Crack running through my system. I can totally tell when it’s time for one and then I can feel the effects within 10 minutes (whether psychological or physiological is probably up for debate). I should get off my lazy bum and start making my own. Anyone try the Vega sport one? Any good? Hey Susan, nice add on. Love the girly parts visual I’m getting. Sorry about the scar, but dudes dig scars.

  5. Joe Kanaszka says:

    Great article Doug!
    Surprisingly GU gels are not Vegan in the strictest sense due to the amino acids which are unfortunately derived from animals. This was confirmed by the folks at GU. I’m Vegan so when I found out I simply switched to Cliff Shots who state right on their web site which off their products are in fact Vegan. The Mocha is awesome! I take one every 4 miles during a marathon right from the start.

  6. As someone mentioned above, RaceReady shorts have awesome pockets all along the back. It feels great to not have gels pinned on or stuffed anywhere chafe-y.

    Great post, thanks!

    • Joe Kanaszka says:

      Race ready shorts are AWESOME! I own a pair and love them! I usually don’t use the back pockets though – just the two in the front. I can stuff to Cliff Shots in each one during a race. if I’m wearing arm warmers I usually tuck some in there too by my wrist. During training I run on a trail so I carry my own water/Gatorade in a Nathan HPL #020 – one of my favorite pieces of gear. I can store 4 gels in the right front pocket. Off topic but I manage two squeeze two bladders in this as well (one is my old Camelback badder). I fill one with water and drink with the Cliff shots. The other i fill with Gatorade or some other Electrolyte fluid. The Nathan is SO comfortable – way more light than my old Camelback MULE pack ( a good hydration pack in its own right but more suited for hiking or mountain biking.)

  7. Eliot W. Collins says:

    Many gels contain maltodextrin. Most maltodextrin in the U.S. is derived from corn. If any processed food contains corn, then it must be assumed that this corn is GMO, unless the product is labeled “USDA Organic”. In my opinion, a small amount of GMO corn will not harm me in any way. Many others, however, chose to avoid all GMO ingredients completely.

  8. I like the Clif Shots, but in recent years, I’ve replaced them with dates stuffed with coconut oil, especially on long bike rides. They hold up pretty well in transit and give you and easily digestible, longer-burning fat along with the sugary carb hit of the dates.
    I once made the mistake of taking a caffeinated Clif Shot as an after-work pick-me-up before a yoga class and the results weren’t pretty–lots of shakiness in the balancing poses.

    • Joe Kanaszka says:

      Did you have some wind blowing through that tree pose of yours? :) Tree Pose is hard enough for me w/o having the jitters!

  9. Urgh. Tried the gels but I cannot take them, the texture just.. urgh. It’s what I imagine snot to taste like. They are the WORST thing ever. I switched to the Clif bloks instead. Tried so many gels and discovered I’m not a gel lover, kudos to those that can take them they just taste awful IMO.

  10. I’m a fan of Clif Bloks myself–I find the orange and strawberry flavors are pretty palatable. The texture of the gels doesn’t bother me so much–they remind me of frosting–but for some reason my stomach can’t handle them, at least not when I’m working out. The last time I tried a Clif Shot during a long run, I ended up barfing in someone’s driveway (something I still feel awful about, lol). As a general rule, I far prefer to use whole foods for energy, and when I’m just out for a long jog I tend to bring along date/almond rolls with coconut oil and steamed baby potatoes with salt. I’m sad to say, though, that these don’t give me the same energy boost as the commercial stuff, so I tend to stick with the Bloks during races. I wish that wasn’t the case, so it would be great to see some more homemade gel recipes (wink nudge wink).

  11. I take the Vega gels and I have had great success with them. They are 100 calories, 22g carbs and I take 1 every 45 min or so on long runs. The texture is very different from the GUs and Clif Shots, but I don’t really mind. The maltodextrin in other gels make me nervous as I am trying to avoid GMOs as much as possible. Along with the Vega Recovery Accelerator I have been feeling great on my long runs lately. I recover a lot quicker and have sustained energy throughout. I’m a Vega runner, for sure!

  12. Tried and true method to pinning gels on running shorts (pockets slow me down). Make sure to trim the sharp edges off the packets first!

    http://coachlevi.com/running/how-to-pin-energy-gels-to-your-running-shorts/

  13. Anyone tried Vi gels? Not sure if they’re veg. Most gels have been reeking havoc on my stomach on long runs…

  14. I learned the hard way to test gels, chomps, drinks, and anything else you might want to ingest on race day while training. Never try anything new during a race. it’s a bad time to discover something gives you gastric distress. :(

  15. Larry Bard says:

    I’m good with the HS products. Does that make me a BEEgan?

  16. Melissa says:

    I recently won a variety of different gels and chews at a running group raffle. I’m new to using any of these products, so I’m trying to figure out which ones are vegan. What non-vegan ingredients should I be looking for? I know what to look for on food labels, but I’m not sure if there are specific amino acid or ingredients with chemical names in these products that I’m not familiar with.

  17. I pin gels to the inside of my shorts. Pin the little top part that rips off. Leave that part on your shorts, rip off the gel, eat, and throw away. You cang et the pins off after the race.

  18. durianrider says:

    The GU gels get their amino acids from ground up chicken feathers. Confirmed by the company.

    Cliff are vegan. Torq nutrition do vegan gels and bars. The best tasting on the market Ive had so far. Try the organic mango bar or the strawberry yoghurt get. 100% both are vegan as indicated by the torq website and the ‘suitable for vegans’ labeling on the gels and bars.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] a few weeks ago (tried one on a whim when they were handing the out at mile 8).  I did some research and decided to try the Clif brand, double expresso flavor.  I was not a fan of the consistency [...]

  2. [...] on the market: Hammer Gel, Clif Shot, Powerbar and Gu. You can get more information on energy gels here. But in my opinion the best option is a bag of raisins. I swear by it! It gives you energy without [...]

  3. […] catch people off guard because initially it appears vegan, but if you look at the addendum/comments in this write-up and this one you’ll see that bigger writers than I are quick to get corrected on […]

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