To Gel or Not To Gel, That Is The Question!

Salty

Salty

Salty has written 311 posts on Salty Running.

Mommy, lawyer, runner, writer. Competitive runner working on coming back after baby #3. Legal career on hiatus while staying home with the kids (ages 5, 4 and 1.5). Salty Running boss.

kid in a candy shop.

Not too different from a runner in a running store these days. (Photo credit: rhoadeecha)

I love walking into my local running store when it’s time to buy energy gels. I feel like a kid in a candy store! How could I not with all those shiny packages and fruity flavors to choose from? They’re fun to buy and they look like astronaut food; surely they will make me fast! When out on the run and feeling tired the temptation to rip open the sparkly foil and suck down that sweet sweet nectar can feel overwhelming… anything to feel better and get the miles in, right?

But what if I told you that the average runner these days over-relies on gels and is not only harming her training, but needlessly holding onto extra fat and letting go of far too many dollars? The title may be a little sensationalistic, but it’s time to ask the question: are gels making me (relatively) slower, fatter and broker than I otherwise would be? As the editor of a running site, I like to follow along with other forums and blogs to see what’s going on in the greater runnerverse, and recently I’ve noticed a lot of people talking about how they fuel their training runs. I’ve never used many gels, usually just once or twice during marathon training as a test and then (of course) during the race itself, so I was astonished to read that a high number of runners take gels every 3-4 miles of every training run. Some of these people are training for races and some are just running for fitness, but many many people are taking in gels–often multiple gels–during every single run.*

* For purposes of this post when I say gels, I also mean carbs from other sources like sports drinks, gummies, candy, etc.

I have nothing against gels per se; they serve a useful purpose for training for long distance events like the half and full marathon. However, whether you’re running to race, get fit or just for fun, using gels during every run is not good for you. And science backs me up, suggesting that using gels beyond half and full marathon races and a few long training runs leading up to those races is completely unnecessary and is actually doing your training, your waistline and your wallet harm.

Look out world! Salty’s putting on her science (trucker) hat! Image via zazzle.com.

WHAT DOES THE SCIENCE SAY

A few weeks ago, in my Fight the Bonk post, I explained how our bodies burn both carbs (sugars, glycogen, all the same) and fat when we run. The slower we go the more fat we burn and the more glycogen we preserve. The faster we go, the more carbs we burn relative to our fat stores. At our marathon race pace we have about 2 hours before we’ll run out of glycogen and have only fat left to burn. When we only have fat to burn, we feel sluggy and slow and baaaad (this is a bonk!)

The good news is that at easy pace (appx. 1 minute per mile slower than marathon race pace), most of us can go much longer without running out of glycogen, so there is no need to take gels when running that easy pace. If running at marathon race pace for a training run, you don’t need gels when running for 2 hours or less. The science simply does not support the idea that anything bad will happen to a runner who doesn’t ingest carbs on most of our runs.

So the science says we don’t need the gels for most training runs, but is this a no harm/no foul kind of situation? No! Taking an occasional gel probably won’t hurt you, but taking them EVERY 30-40 minutes of EVERY training run will. This over-reliance on gels will make you relatively slower, fatter and broker than if you nip the habit in the bud.

SLOWER

As explained in this article on MarathonGuide.com, by taking so many gels your body always has glycogen at the ready and you will never give it the opportunity to learn to use fat more efficiently. Thus, you put yourself at risk of bonking and running slower in your marathons than you otherwise could. If you’re training to race a marathon to the best of your ability, wean yourselves off that gel dependency now. For more on training your body to rely more on fat and spare your glycogen stores see my Fight the Bonk post mentioned earlier and this article from Running Times.

Those gel calories add up, ladies. Even I could tell you that. Image via scienceblogs.com

FATTER

I hope it doesn’t come as a surprise to you that the Salties, as a general rule do not use weight loss as our main motivation for running (although it is occasionally a side effect). We run for so many other reasons and most of us would happily gain a few pounds if it meant running faster! However, does any athlete want excess baggage? If there are pounds on my body that are unnecessary to my health and easily shed, heck I’m doing it!

When it comes to consuming gels at the rate of every 3-4 miles, I suspect that’s a lot of unnecessary calories and thus pounds hanging around your body that could easily be shed simply by quitting the gel addiction. Let’s take a look at the math. Running a mile burns about 100 calories regardless of pace. The average gel contains 100 calories. When running 12 miles, most of us burn 1200 calories. When we take a gel every 3 miles you only burn 800-900 calories. That’s like running 3 less miles in terms of calorie burning.

On top of that, you’re not burning up your fat stores when those carbs are just sitting there like low-hanging fruit. Your body will spare the chub and burn the sugar. Wouldn’t you rather your body burn as much fat on your runs as possible to optimize both performance and leanness? To get it to do that, skip the gels!

BROKER

Gels ain’t cheap and most of the time they ain’t necessary. Even if you run relatively low miles, say 30 a week for simplicity’s sake and take a gel every 3 miles, that’s 10 gels a week. A very conservative estimate of cost is $1/gel so at best your spending $45/month or $540/year on gels. GELS! They’re fake food! It’s not even nutritious! Not only are you wasting a lot of money on fake, non-nutritious food, it’s also not doing your training or your waistline any good.

SO WHEN SHOULD I TAKE GELS?

Gels do serve a purpose. They are there when you actually need to replace the glycogen depleted on the run. They are handy 100 calorie servings of glycogen in an easily digestible form that also happens to be easy to carry. That’s great! But again, they aren’t exactly good for you beyond replacing this glycogen, can prevent your body from efficiently burning fat and are expensive for what they are. For these reasons, it’s best to only use them when necessary.

This is solid advice for racing and selling more product. Gu is great (and probably hates me right about now), but this stuff just isn’t necessary for your day-to-day training! Image via guenergy.com

But when you read the little packet it tells you that you need to take a gel every 45 minutes. Why does it say this if it’s largely not true? A) They want to sell more of their product (which again is a great product for what it is) and B) It’s not completely untrue. When you’re racing a half or full-marathon this is great baseline advice: a gel every 45 minutes when you’re running relatively hard like in a marathon or half marathon race is pretty solid advice to prevent bonking. Pepper has a great post on how to use gels when racing marathons and I’m sure the rules for ultra-training are different (we’ll leave that one for Clove), but for now a good rule of thumb is to save the gels for race day.

Is this the only time we recommend you take gels? No, actually. It’s a good idea to practice taking gels in at least a couple of runs before your big race when you’ll be relying on them. This is to both make sure your body knows how to metabolize the sugars in the gel on the run (preferably incorporate some race pace in these gel trial runs) and to make sure your GI tract likes a certain flavor or brand and your palate agrees. Some flavors even by the same company can make you gag or nauseous when others are perfectly fine. Fruit-flavored Gu is great for me, but the chocolate or espresso is the devil!

So, if you take anything away from this post it’s this:

1. You don’t need gels on most of your training runs.

2. Gels are a great tool for racing a half or full-marathon.

3. It’s good to take gels when racing half and full marathons and on some long training runs in anticipation of those races to determine that your body can handle a particular variety for the race.

4. Using gels more than this is hurting your performance, your waistline and your wallet. It’s not only useless; it’s not good for you!

CAVEAT!

Now if you’ve been over-relying on gels, please do NOT go cold turkey and start running completely without them. Please wean yourself off. Extend the intervals between gels by 1 mile a week until you don’t need them any more, something like that. By consuming the gels all the time your body isn’t ready to go crazy with the fat burning and will need time to adjust. No Meat Athlete has a great post about how to kick the gel habit here. Now I know it’s fun to pick out the flavors of those cute little packets and it’s nice to have something like a sweet little treat to look forward to to get through those rough miles. But when you look at the realities, it’s just not worth it. Save the gels for races and use those extra calories for post-long run pancakes and those extra dollars on a destination race!

How often do you use gels in training? Does your experience say something different than what the science suggests? Is there some benefit to gels that I’m missing?

***

We’re hard at work pouring over race reports looking for our winners. We’ll be back later today to announce third place. Tomorrow you can read the second place race report and then on Monday, you’ll read the best of the bunch and find out who won our 2013 Race Report Challenge! In the meantime, we hope today’s rerun was food for thought (get it? Food for thought. Yeah, sorry. That was pretty lame!) If you over-rely on energy gels, may 2014 be your year to retrain your fat-burning system! Happy New Year eve

38 Responses to “To Gel or Not To Gel, That Is The Question!”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Twila says:

    Such a loaded question! My favorite GU is made by PowerBar; the tangerine flavored with double caffeine but I can never take more than 2. I have yet to find a really good non-caffeine option to take in between but like anything fruit flavored for the most part. My GUing goes like this during a marathon 5 miles non caffeine GU, 10 miles caffeine GU, 15 miles non caffeine GU and 20 miles caffeine GU. I have also used blocks at mile 15 but they are annoying to open. So far this works for me but my last marathon I did get that “hungry” feeling so I may need to change something.

    Love your site! First time I have commented but I have been reading for a while. A friend of mine is a runner in Ohio (Monica Nowac) and she told me about your great blog! Thanks for all the great running advice.

    • Salty Salty says:

      Thanks for commenting, Twila! I think I met you at the farmers market last summer :)

      I think no matter how many gels and such you take you’ll still be depleted and probably experience that hungry feeling in the race. As long as you didn’t bonk–and you’d know if you did! Get shaky, weak, slow WAY down etc. The best you can do is to not have GI distress or bonk from whatever you’re taking in. The marathon, especially racing a marathon for time is really hard on your body and you’re not going to feel comfortable over those last miles no matter what you do! So, it sounds like that formula works for you!

      As for non-caffeine gels, I like the strawberry-banana or lemon-lime Gus! I like the Power Gels too because they’re not as thick, but they are kinda huge so I’ve never used them in a race.

  2. Salty Salty says:

    I agree with Twila and like the fruity gels. Anything chocolate does not work for me. I have to slow down and wait for the chocolate blob to settle down and not barf when I take it. Yuck! CANNOT stand any of the chocolatey\coffee\vanilla gels!

    I really like the gummies, but I am not going to haul that giant packet along with me in a race and then the whole dealing with opening and reclosing the bag thing is enough to keep me away from those. My kids LOVE the Honey Stinger Energy Chews. They’re how I get them excited to go to Fleet Feet :)

    • Sassafras says:

      Salty, I am a gummy girl, and I solve this by putting the number of gummies I need in one of those half-size sandwich bags before the race. Much easier to access!

  3. Michelle says:

    My body does not agree with gels, so I’m a straight up, Cliff Shot Blocks, girl. My go to flavor is black cherry & it does have caffiene. I love the taste and they go down so easily. I took one block this morning before my track work out. I had 10 total miles with some heavy intervals, so I didn’t want to start with nothing in the tank. I usually take 4-6 on a longer run of 14+ miles.

  4. Debra says:

    I gel on runs longer than 1:30 and I take one about every 45 minutes. I’ve mostly used Accell either vanilla or chocolate and have no GI issues with those. I just tried some hammer and am planning to switch to those when my current supply runs out. The chocolate was like a packet of cake frosting but the vanilla was pretty wierd.

    One day I bought a kiwi-strawberry at a race expo and then carried it around in my pack. I was out on a run in the country and pulled it out of the pack. The taste was absolutely vile but there was nothing I could do with the sticky packet. No garbage cans. No way to put it back in my pack like that without covering my phone and keys with kiwi strawberry gel so I had to take it to empty the pack. I became convinced that 100% of kiwi strawberry gel consumed are consumed by people who open the pack and don’t have access to a garbage can. (and understand that I love both kiwi and strawberry).

    I would love to take fig newtons for my energy but I’ve got gluten sensitivity so I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be pretty.

    Oh… and the guy who did the run but didn’t take the gel because he would take it when his energy tanked. Isn’t part of the intent to take the gel BEFORE you energy tanks? Like when your energy tanks it’s sort of too late to do something. I’d rather prevent a crash than try to remedy it.

    • Paprika says:

      To answer your question about the super-human who didn’t take in any gels during his 17-mile trek through the hills (at elevations maxing out at 5,000 ft)….I have no idea how he did it. All I can assume (or hope) is that he had a massive breakfast and possibly sucked down an energy gel before the run. He was one of the first people to finish the race, so it’s a possibility that he was so focused on finishing before his friends that he didn’t want to stop to take in a gel. I’m on the same page as you with this…preventing a crash is much easier (and safer) than trying to remedy it.

    • Salty Salty says:

      Actually, if training for longer races like marathons and ultras it’s actually common to intentionally go without carbs to train the body to burn fat more efficiently which will leave more carbs available for your muscles later in the race. I used to almost never use gels for long runs – up to 3 hours or more and if I did I would take no more than 1 and only to test out how my body reacted to them. I’d regularly feel like doo-doo at the end of a long run, but that’s kind of the point. I’ll be writing more about this soon :)

  5. eep says:

    My favorite is Vanilla Bean GU. If you take it while drinking orange whatever-ade it tastes like a creamsicle. but I usually stick with water. I generally take one every hour while training, and a bit more often while racing (every 45 minutes, I guess). I will note that most people really need to be fully hydrated when using GU, and take some water with them, as they can cause cramping otherwise. I am not a super speedy runner, so taking GUs according to time means that during a marathon I can end up consuming several packets. I found that everything is more comfortable if I have some real food about halfway through the marathon, something easy to digest like a Luna Bar. Otherwise all that sugar makes my belly feel gross, and I have a stomach of steel. I can imagine that it would be really unpleasant for anyone with a more delicate system.

  6. Mint says:

    My favorite is PowerBar because it has electrolytes. GU does not have as much and I personally think Roctane is expensive hype that is no better – at least that has been my experience when I have tried it. Admittedly, I don’t use that many gels during training. If I have a long run (over 15 miles), I’ll take a couple. During my goal marathons, however, I force myself to take a lot of them so I do not bonk. Typically I take one 15 minutes before the start; and then 4 during the race – starting around mile 5.

    ONE THING THAT IS VERY IMPORTANT: you must take water with your gels – not Gatorade. If you use Gatorade, your body won’t absorb the gel properly and you will be very likely to get a sugary stomach/GI distress. So particularly when racing the marathon, it is good to take in Gatorade, but always drink water when you take your gels (and if there is water every mile, maybe the mile before and after your gel as well).

    BTW – I tried a margarita Shot Blok last year and it was seriously the most disgusting thing ever. But I don’t do well with blocks/beans/hard food while running and I am not a big margarita gal. Also – I never used to be able to stomach chocolate, but now I can pretty much suck down any of the flavors. They definitely work for me, so I’ll stomach just about any of them.

  7. Cinnamon Cinnamon says:

    I think the most important thing about a gel is that you can actually keep it down! As evidenced by my poetry above, I used Gu in my marathon and in my first couple half-marathons, but quickly learned that the nausea and retch-y feeling they give me are neither normal nor necessary. I’m not sure what it is about them…maybe I just haven’t found my flavor yet.

    Mixing them with my water is a good option I hadn’t considered…but since I don’t carry water for a road race it may not really be viable.

    I’ve really come to love the Jelly Bellies. I pop one or two in every couple miles and suck on them (outside my teeth so I don’t choke) and they do a really great job. AND they taste yummy–my favorite are the watermelon flavor.

    I’m also interested in testing real food during a race, but for my next one I’m going to test out the Honey Stinger Waffles and see how I manage to carry them!

  8. krista says:

    I prefer to make my own gels because I can’t stand the taste of most packet gels and I hate having to open them in the middle of a run. I’m not very coordinated to begin with so I like things that are easy. Ha!

    The nice thing about making my own is that I can keep about 5oz. of gel in a single gel flask which is easy to carry and lasts for roughly 15 miles for me. I also like to know all the ingredients that I’m consuming and question some of the ingredients on those commercial gels. For my own recipe I prefer to use my nuun tablets as flavoring and add chia seeds to it for my longer runs for the protein and water absorption. My basic ingredients are: raw sugar, water, 1 nuun tablet, pinch of salt, juice of half a lemon/lime.

    I do like to supplement with real food though along the way, but if I’m feeling like I need a little extra energy my homemade stuff works like a champ.

    • Paprika says:

      Where did you get your gel flask? I read in your race report from B2R that you were using a chia seed mix. I’m a big fan of chia seeds for long runs, I really should have put that in this write up. I like to buy the ground chia seeds and mix with honey and chocolate almond milk. It’s like pudding! The only problem is carrying it around on a run…I’d worry about it sitting around for a couple hours.

    • Debra says:

      I’m totally going to try making my own gel but I’ll have to get a gel flask. The bike shops here all sell them. I love chia seeds but I’ve never tried fueling with them on a run. I usually just drink them before or after (I like to mix a tbsp chia seeds, tbsp honey, juice of a lemon, and 10 oz or so of water).

      • Salty Salty says:

        I was loving chia this winter. I’d make a hot chia cereal with coconut milk, bananas and blueberries. But then I got pregnant and I now associate unbelievable nausea with them so I have a giant bag sitting in my cupboard wasting away! Despite that, I’m going to ask Rosemary to get on a whole foods gel recipe. Yummy! (At least it will be once I’m not pregnant :)

  9. Alex ( says:

    what are your experiences with energy gels?
    I’ve Tried many different ones, I’m trying to stay away from caffeine so many are out of the question for me. I’ve finally settled on Ignite Naturals Fig based Gels (Vegan, 100% natural, healthy) and my main option is Pocketfuel packets.

    Have you ever tried alternative options for re-fueling?
    Pocketfuel is almond butter mixed with different varieties of chocolate and other stuff. They come in 400 and 200 calorie reusable pouch with a screw on cap.

  10. Marla says:

    I train on an empty stomach, but have found that 1 GU per hour (no other foods except maybe watermelon during a hot race) during an Ultra Marathon works best for me. Peanut Butter and Chocolate flavors are the best:)

  11. Sassafras says:

    My stomach and gels do not see eye to eye, so I go for more of the gummy variety. My favorites (that are sadly discontinued) were the Luna Moons: very portable, good flavor variety, etc. I pretty much stick to Shot Bloks now and prefer Strawberry or Black Cherry. I used to do Sports Beans and don’t have anything against them, but they were the only thing I knew of when training for my first marathon and I got pretty burnt out on them.

    In a pinch, I have relied on the following: gummy bears, Skittles and Tic Tacs. All have worked *somewhat*. They’re obviously not ideal nutrition, but OK for those times when you realize too late that you’re out and the only place open is a gas station!

  12. Rob Weikel says:

    I would have to say that the best gel that is easy on the stomach, and goes down very easy would be the Carb-Boom! energy gels made with Real Fruit. Best tasting gel on the market. Give it a try

  13. Lynette says:

    I’ve also been making my own. My latest contains agave, dates, banana, dulce and some mata. I’ll use these for overnight only and use EFS (Endurance First Liquid Shot) along with food during the day. (I reuse the EFS flasks.) On shorter runs, I usually ditch gels for food, though I’ll have a Gu shoved somewhere in my hydration pak or handheld for emergencies.

  14. The only reason I use gels (on very rare occasions) on training runs, even the longest ones, is to verify that my stomach will still tolerate the type used at an upcoming race. I’ve been fortunate in that has always been the case, but even in my most recent marathon, I went without gels and was just fine. And I’m a believer that, like most things in running, this issue has been made far too complex by companies seeking profit (not that I disagree with that motivation). Natural foods like raisins, dates, etc. are just as good of a source of energy as these more expensive gels.
    Another key point is that our digestive capabilities are very limited in the marathon (and there is ZERO reason to take gels for any race distance less than 20 miles). Most of our blood flow goes to our muscles and thus the stomach cannot process more than a few hundred calories per hour, far less than we burn, and which can be provided through adequate use of sports drinks on offer on the course.

    • Salty Salty says:

      I totally agree with you here. I’ve been noticing that on various running sites runners are talking about using 3 gu’s for 12 miles and 2 for 9 miles (2 specific examples I can think of off the top of my head). That is just plain unnecessary and also kinda yucky–all that unnecessary sugar and calories. Sure, the packets say take one every 45 minutes but that’s more for a marathon race or hard sustained effort maybe. That’s not totally necessary if running easy. I think a lot of people are mistaking being tired from running with bonking and needing sugar. It can happen, of course, but it’s not nearly as common as people believe.

      I used to hardly every take gels and last year I started taking them before track workouts sometimes which helped–the caffeine and a little sugar boost helped me get through the dinner time workouts. I also used them during long runs more than I ever did before and I ended up bonking in my fall marathon. Again, new experience for me. As I’ve said in the comments to the Fight the Bonk! post I have to wonder if the bonking was because I was still nursing my daughter and my body was resistant to burn my fat stores or because I didn’t train the fat burning system enough or some combination of the two or just bad luck on that day. Who knows.

  15. Lori Toth says:

    I have experimented with all sorts of different things for my long runs. For gel packs I like the Honey Stingers the best. I usually always have some freeze dried banana chips with me as well. Another great thing I have come across is baby food packs. They are not much bigger than gel packs. Plain mashed bananas are great but I have also taken different banana vege combos. They really hit the spot.

  16. Debra says:

    Christmas week I found my run shedule mixed up. I was at in-laws’ out in the country and decided to do my Saturday long run on Thursday. I had no gels or way to get them. I’m used to a gel every 45-60 minutes on a run longer than 1:15 or 1:30. Instead I set a bottle of water, lip balm, and some cough drops by the gate. Over the course of the run, I sucked on 3 cough drops. It moistened my mouth in the cold weather and each drop had a little bit of sugar. That worked out very well for me.

  17. DrHorrible says:

    In the UK the most popular brand is Science In Sport (SIS). Their GO Isotonic Gel is very easy to take, a gentle flavour, easy on the stomach and works well. I found that they work very well. However, I only take them on runs over 1 hour, or occasionally before exercise if I have not eaten properly. I like SIS Go gels as you can take them without water and they are not gooey or sticky, they are very good.

  18. Madhavi says:

    I am looking and researching a lot on taking energy gels or energy supplements. My Husband and I are training for our first Marathon, the longest we went so far is 21 miles and we didn’t take any GU or any type of energy gel. I am little worried about the actual race as I haven’t tested my stomach with any gel. Everyone tells me its very important to gel to avoid the wall or bonking.. the 21 miles took us like 3.45min and NO gels.. any suggestions?

  19. Paul says:

    I’ve been distance running for around a year or so now and often wondered about gels. My concern is about my teeth. Won’t all that sugar cause tooth decay? Wish I could brush my teeth and floss mid run :)

  20. I have never had any luck using gels, blocks, or goop. They hit my stomach and they come right back up during races and I never use them during training…I really shocked when I see people taking them during training runs.That being said I’m going to do a tri this year and I am having a feeling that Im going to be out there longer than two hours and I was looking for natural alternatives ..thinking my tummy will do better with that. I heard dried apricots were good . Any Ideas? I dont want to make a homemade gel ..i think it might be a texture thing as well.

Leave a Reply