They’re gooey. They’re sticky. They can be messy, get all over your hands, and be completely gag-inducing if you pick a bad flavor. You know what I’m talking about: energy gels. Those little foil packets full of sugars (carbohydrates), usually electrolytes and maybe even caffeine (zzzzzing!).
Chances are if you’re a Salty reader you’ve at least heard about energy gels if not already well acquainted with them. You might have your favorite brand and flavors stashed in your gym bag as you read this. But do you really know when to crack open a packet? Should you take one or more during every run? If you should take them how many to take? Are you stuck with gels or is there some other way to get in those carbs? What the heck is in them anyway? Could you substitute real food for the sciency stuff in the packet?
One of the most common brands of energy gels– GU, states on their package that the gel “provides athletes with a dose of 100 calories to deliver high-quality, easily-digested, and long lasting energy for athletes in every sport and at all levels.” Kinda sounds like magic in a little package, doesn’t it? As a good skeptic I decided to do a little experiment.
This past week I decided to try different varieties of gels, along with asking every runner I knew their thoughts on using gels during their runs. I was on a long trail run with a friend last week who was new to long-distance running. I knew he had never used an energy gel before, and decided to introduce him to the stuff (and hoped it would prevent him from burning out during the run). I pulled out two energy gels from the little pocket in my handheld, and handed him a flavor I’d been holding on to for a while (I really wanted to see his reaction).
“You first,” I told him. “I’ve never tried that flavor.”
“Pineapple-flavored energy gel?” He asked, looking at the little packet suspiciously.
“Mine’s mocha,” I said. “If that makes you feel any better. It’s kind of a ‘lesser evil’ sort of thing.”
He ripped off the top and carefully squeezed the gel into his mouth– and his reaction was priceless. He looked like a child taking in spoonfuls of a disgusting liquid medicine. He finished off the packet and handed it back to me (I keep the energy gels in a little plastic bag so they don’t get goo all over the inside of my handheld).
“There has to be better flavors than that,” He said.
“There probably are,” I told him honestly. “The only flavors that don’t make me sick are mocha and chocolate…which are still not all that appealing during a hot trail run.”
This weekend during a group run in Santa Barbara I had the opportunity to ask some experienced long-distance runners what their thoughts on energy gels were.
“I like Gu’s Roctane the best,” One woman said. “They are also, unfortunately, the most expensive gel you can find. But they are targeted towards more extreme endurance runners.”
“Do you think they work better?” I asked her.
“I think so,” she said. “They give me a better boost than the other kinds.”
I eaves-dropped on another conversation. A man had just finished the run (which was a very grueling 17-Mile trail run) and tossed his buddy a couple energy gels.
“I never ended up using them,” He said. “I carried them around in my hydration pack just incase I felt my blood sugar drop, but I was fine.”
This completely shocked me. I did half of the trail that they did and sucked down three energy gels (with caffeine!) in the process. I think this is a great example of how everyone’s body works differently.
One of my running mentors is a huge advocate of energy gels. He makes sure to take one in every forty-five minutes during long runs and encourages me to do the same. Considering he has completed 50K’s, 100K’s, and 100+ Mile treks, I tend to take his advice very seriously. He has even gotten me to take in Salt pills during my long runs! It makes a huge difference for me.
What I’ve found is that preventing myself from hitting that “wall” or “bonking” (both runner-ese for running out of carbs to burn) during my runs is key. Many times in the past (before I used energy gels) I’d bonk towards the middle or end of my long runs and have to zombie-march back to my car. That’s never fun and potentially dangerous if you find yourself far from your car and mentally caput.
Another person I asked about their opinions on gels told me that they prefer the gummy-candy version, like Cliff Shot Bloks, Gu Chomps and Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews.”You take them every thirty minutes instead of every forty-five to an hour,” She said. “And they taste a million times better!” I tried some and I have to agree they are pretty good. One of my best friends swears by the Margarita flavored Clif Shot Bloks. Oh yeah. You heard me right. Margarita flavored. Do I really need to say more?
While flavor, texture and stomach acceptance are all very important, the composition of these products should not be overlooked. I’ve often sucked them down without even considering what’s inside. Let me break it down for you.
The basic energy gel formula contains:
* Carbohydrates – 100 calories in the form of 70-80% maltodextrin and 30-20% fructose. This combination creates a complex carbohydrate, which have been shown to digest quicker than simple sugars and honey.
*Amino Acid Blend – Amino acids help to combat muscle fatigue, assimilate the conversion of carbohydrates into energy, and help overall mental focus.
*Electrolytes – Sodium and potassium to balance the electrolyte levels in your body. Potassium also works in reducing cramping and improving overall fluid movement in and out of the bodies cells.
Here are a few tips based on the advice from veteran trail friends and my own research and experience.
* You don’t have to use energy gels or even their close cousins the gummies. There are many other products, such as Jelly Belly Sports Beans, Honey Stinger Waffles and drinks like Gatorade that contain similar ingredients.
* If palatability or GI issues cause you to steer clear of gels, another option is squeezing the energy gel into your handheld or water cup. It dilutes the flavor and you get a more consistent supply of energy during your run.
* If you’re into a more whole food approach– you do have options! The goal is to consume 30-60 grams of easily digestible carbohydrates. Barbara Ruhs, R.D., a nutrition consultant at Harvard University, chooses to re-fuel during her long runs with orange slices, Fig Newtons, and LifeSavers. I personally am a huge fan of dates– which contain both sugar and carbohydrates (and they are all natural!). Energy gels are popular because they are easy to pack and come in many flavors. That doesn’t mean they are the best choice for re-fueling during your long runs!
Lastly, our darling Cinnamon had some poetic words about energy gels:
Do you train with Gu in hand or wearing Gus in your waistband?
Do you do Gu in a race? Do you do Gu when you pace?
When you do Gu, how much do YOU do?
Do you eat one Gu per mile, or save them for a longer while?
Do you eat them by the hour, do you think they give you power?
They make me vomit, retch and spit.
They do not give me negative splits.
The mountain berry are okay, but please save Orange for another day.
I do not like green Gus or blue. I cannot eat them. Say, can you?
So virtual running pals, what are your experiences with energy gels? What are your favorite kinds? Have you ever tried alternative options for re-fueling?