Post written by Doug Hay.
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 workout nutrition 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 1: GU is not strictly vegan — see discussion in comments.] [Update 2: As of April, 2015, GU is now 100% vegan]
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?
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