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

Paprika

Crista has written 24 posts on Salty Running.

I'm currently a graduate student in Clinical Psychology (trying to earn that Ph.D!), freelance creative writer, aspiring ultrarunner, part-time Vegan (and part-time In & Out and Sushi lover), acoustic guitar player and crafter of cute things (like crocheted owls). I like to tackle life head on. I like to learn. And I'm not afraid to make mistakes.

Gummy candy

Are energy gels really any better than these candies?  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?

GU Energy Gels come in a wide range of flavors! (Photo credit: GUEnergy.com)

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.”

Roctane: Power to Climb the Pass

Roctane Energy Gels for Endurance Running (Photo credit: fordsbasement)

“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.

Honey Stinger makes a mean organic gummy that rivals the Clif Bloks!

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 BeansHoney Stinger Waffles and drinks like Gatorade that contain similar ingredients.

English: Two Nabisco-brand Fig Newtons stacked...

Fig Newtons can be a good alternative to energy gels! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

* 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?

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

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  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 :)

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