Too Much of a Goo Thing: Is Overuse of Gels Making You Slow, Fat and Broke?

Salty

Salty

Salty has written 308 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  

52 Responses to “Too Much of a Goo Thing: Is Overuse of Gels Making You Slow, Fat and Broke?”

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  1. Mint says:

    Great post, Salty! I am often amazed at how often runners unnecessarily take in gels. Personally, I use them sparingly during training and only during my longest runs. For example, I ran 20 on Sunday and only took in 2 gels (the run took me 3 hours). I use them during training to (1) make sure I can tolerate them – I just switched to a new kind; and (2) to provide some fuel since often I simply wake up and go without having any sort of breakfast, so I may need some extra fuel. In contrast, on race day, I will easily take in 5 gels (1 15 minutes prerace and 4 during the race).

  2. Leah says:

    I had no idea! I’ve said it before in other comments, but I’m still very new to the running scene, meaning all of my longer runs are the longest runs I’ve ever done! I took gummies when I did a 10-mile race (1 a few minutes before the start and 1 about 45 minutes in) and when I did my triathlon (1 before starting the swim, then 1 the two next transitions). I keep them handy when I’m going to be out running longer than an hour, which isn’t all that often quite yet. I find it’s a peace-of-mind thing when I’m doing 5+ miles since it’s still new territory. I did learn during tri training that I couldn’t take a caffeinated one before swimming or my heart rate would skyrocket and I’d feel really panicky. I’ll probably have them with me when I do my half marathon this Sunday (I think, stupid allergies) and I’ll probably stick with the decaf ones to be safe.

    Great post– definitely got me thinking!

    • Cinnamon Cinnamon says:

      Leah, here’s my half strategy, if you want to borrow it: I only take in 1 gel Gu during a half marathon, and start it at around mile 8 (it usually takes me over a mile to finish one pack). I find that any more or earlier gives me tummy trouble and any less or later makes me feel bonk-y by the last mile. When using sport beans or gummies, I nibble on them over time between mile 7 and the end. Good luck this weekend!

      • Leah says:

        I’m nervous about the real-deal Gus so I’ve stuck with gummies so far. I felt a boost when I took one during my 10-miler (I think, but I’ve also admitted it could be totally placebo-effect), but not as much when I’ve used them on long runs since.

        I think I’ll give your advice a shot, though! I don’t want to be over-using, but I want to make sure I make it to the end, which will almost definitely be more than 2 hours.

        • Salty Salty says:

          Training is a big learning process for all of us. We have to do a lot of trial and error and talk to lots of people and read lots of informative stuff before we have a good idea of what works for us, etc. Give Cinnamon’s advice a shot at the half and then afterwards try to cut back on the glycogen supplements and see how it goes. And don’t forget to let us know how it works out for you :)

      • Mint says:

        Interesting that it takes a whole mile for you to ingest it. I would think it would be most effective if you can take it all at once. Maybe you should experiment with different kinds?

        • Salty Salty says:

          I take mine over a while too. It helps me get it down if I take in a little at a time. If I take it all at once it’s like a rock in my stomach! I still get a boost. It’s not that long of a time to get down. For me maybe 5 minutes?

        • Cinnamon Cinnamon says:

          If I throw it up it won’t be effective at all! That’s why it takes me over a mile. :)

  3. MG says:

    The RLAM Facebook page recently polled runners about their gel usage, and I was amazed by some of the responses. In my pre-kids racing days, gels were only for marathons. I did use them on my long runs, but after my last marathon came to the conclusion that I needed to train without them because they weren’t having the race-day effect that I wanted. (I found that the first run or two with gels, they provided a great boost, but that after that I didn’t feel any boost). I trained with sports drink for my first two, maybe 3, marathons, but I kicked that habit for sure by the 4th. I’ve fallen into a habit of having 2-3 Sharkies or SportBeans on my runs over an hour, but I probably should break that one. It’s a holdover from running while pregnant, and hard to give up.

    • Salty Salty says:

      I forgot to discuss the diminished effect of the boost when your body is used to them. Good point!

      I confess the RLAM FB page is where I first noticed this phenomenon. It’s not just a couple of people saying they use this many gels it was the vast majority of 30+ commenters that really shocked me and inspired this post. I run 2 runs of 90-120 minutes now while pregnant and rarely take in anything other than water! Only exception is if I for some reason didn’t eat enough before the run. I have an emergency gu in my handheld though just in case :) It’s amazing what a habit the gels and such can become. It’s hard to go without that treat when you get used to it!!!

      • MG says:

        Sometimes I think I’m lucky to have started running back in the dark ages (1994). Back then, you just sucked it up and ran without water or food because there wasn’t a way to carry it and gels didn’t really exist. Powerbars were about it for running nutrition, and they were disgusting.

        • Salty Salty says:

          Lol! Powerbars = heinous. Man, I’m really not endearing myself to the sports nutrition brands today :)

          • MG says:

            They really were like a punishment. I tried to eat one on my first 20-mile run. Let me tell you, that didn’t go so well.

          • Salty Salty says:

            I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to eat a powerbar mid-run! I remember my aunt ran a marathon in 1991 and she ate a pack of lifesavers throughout the race and that’s all she needed to run a 3:30-something.

          • Ginger Ginger says:

            I have a secret addiction to chocolate powerbars. I tried them once on a long run a while back and because I love them, it worked out fine. When I buy them, the cashier always asks, “do these actually work? do they make you strong?” I always say no. I just love the taste!

        • MG says:

          And I hit enter before getting to my point of being old school being a good thing to somewhat help resist this trend. This is one case where I wonder if the massive information overload of the internet is hindering people. People see other runners talk about gel and think if it’s good for a long run, then maybe it’s good for a short run. It’s good to get posts like this out there to remind people that it gels not only aren’t necessary, but they can hinder your results!

  4. Cinnamon Cinnamon says:

    My longest training runs ever have been around 4 hours, and I didn’t eat a thing during them! I was fine, just REALLY hungry at the end. Instead of bumping up with sport “food” during the run I tucked a few dollars into my pocket and treated myself to a smoothie right at the end.

    When I’ve tested gels and beans I did it during 11′s and 12′s to get a feel for what I can eat. Since I tend to run those a little quicker than the truly long long runs it seemed like good logic to me.

    • Salty Salty says:

      I notice on long long runs, like over 18 I will get a rough period around 16 or so where I feel hungry and then it passes after a mile or two and I’m fine to the end – perhaps famished at the finish, but perfectly fine otherwise.

  5. misszippy says:

    What a great informative post! I have only recently begun to try glycogen depletion for my long runs and I feel like I am starting to adapt. Prior to that, I used gels on all of my runs of about 14 miles or longer. Now I am only going to use them on my 20 or longer runs, and even then, less often than I used to. I do think there’s a big overuse of these things going on. I see people blogging about taking them on 6 or 8-milers. Huge overkill!

    • Salty Salty says:

      I can’t wait to see how the glycogen depletion training works for you. Definitely report back and let us know! I bet you’ll notice a big difference those last few miles at CIM!

  6. Ryan Knapp says:

    Great post. Simply put, I tell my clients less is more. The least amount of fuel you can take in to satisfy your body’s needs is the best. Also, GU is tough to break down for a lot of people, and gives me GI issues. I take real food on runs with me or get my fuel/calories from liquid whenever possible.

    • Salty Salty says:

      On one of the threads I was reading someone claimed to be a registered dietitian and said she recommended her running clients take gels every 30-40 minutes. She never did explain why. Based on the science this seems like very bad advice from a dietitian!

      • A dietitian will always be biased towards “products as solutions”. Kind of like asking a tailor whether I should set up my business as “business formal” or “business casual” attire.

    • Cinnamon Cinnamon says:

      See, girls? I told you real food is a real option! I’m more and more convinced all the time, and can’t wait to get back out there so I can start tucking bananas into my waistband.

  7. David H. says:

    That whole “take one every 30-45 minutes” thing is pure marketing genius. And I thought most runners were smart people to not believe everything they read. It shocks me at any race when I see people loaded up with gels, or taking a gel before, say, a 5k. I never take a gel unless I’m running more than 10 miles; after that I base it purely on how I feel, generally taking just 2 on long runs.

    • Salty Salty says:

      I gotta give it to Gu, et al. They are great marketers and have ZERO incentive to inform people about the true usefulness of their product. I admit I’ve used a gel before a short race for a boost. After researching this post, I suspect the prerace gel probably had more of a placebo effect than an actual impact on my physiology. I think I’ll just skip it next time!

      • Mint says:

        Haha – I take them in half marathons (usually one right before the start and one half way through) and always feel embarrassed for doing it. But really it is the best time to “practice” using gels in my opinion because you are running closer to goal marathon pace than your general training pace.

        • Salty Salty says:

          I almost always take them when racing a half. I almost always race a half as a tune-up for a full and take them with the thought that it’s practice. But then again, I’m not sure I have the nuts to attempt to race a half without one! Next time I do I’ll see if I can do it :)

  8. I don’t know if I’m old school or new wave in this now, but I only take a gel (or maybe 2) during a marathon, and even then I don’t sweat it if I miss it. My marathon PR last year came with the assistance of no gels. The only time I take a gel on a training run is during one or maybe two 20+ milers just to verify that my GI system can handle them. Maybe it’s the years of predawn/pre-breakfast running helping me build a ton of glycogen efficiency, but I’ve never found anything more than Gatorade necessary as a fuel source. Now I’m not sure what I’ll do if / when I enter the ultra world, as that’s another beast entirely…
    And I’m kind of surprised you take gels during a half, Salty – as I’m surprised at any half-marathon that feels the need to offer them.

    • Salty Salty says:

      I think the gel in the HM is just a habit or perhaps a superstitious thing! I’ve always taken one so I’m afraid not to and all of my training partners take them too. I even think they don’t help me because I have a hard time stomaching them. Often my mile that i take the gel is one of the slowest miles in the race for me.

      I’d say I’d never take one in a HM again, but honestly it’s going to be even harder for me to pass them up after experiencing a bonk during my last marathon, but I honestly believe (sorry if TMI) that the bonk was due to the fact that I was still nursing. I think a nursing body is very reticent to give up the fat stores and will go for the glycogen first. If I race a half while still nursing this time, I might have to bring the gel. It’s going to be a while before feel comfortable training in any glycogen depleted state. Hence, I’ve sworn off full marathons until I’m done nursing this time!

      • Salty Salty says:

        PS I wouldn’t be surprised if the gel companies give the half-marathons their products to pass out. Great advertising!

        • That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I can see the value of giving them out at marathons, since maybe a vast majority of marathoners would purchase gels – but for half-marathons, where (at least where I’ve seen half-marathons/marathons in combination) the participants are 5X the number, does it make sense to do so? Now you have me curious what portion of gels are consumed in races versus bought for training (or race use by individuals)? The business side of me is intrigued, maybe because I’m in a business sense of mind about the announcement I’m working on for tonight.

          • Salty Salty says:

            Way to leave us hanging there, Greg! But yeah, that is interesting. I’d say based on the totally unscientific anecdotal data I’ve picked up from the internets I’d guess the bulk of the business comes from runners using them on ordinary ol’ training runs and not for races.

          • One would hope so, otherwise the business model wouldn’t work – but I bet the ratio of race versus “consumer” use is much higher than it is for Gatorade.
            And you can see a preview of my big news on my blog as we speak.

        • Cinnamon Cinnamon says:

          Definitely true of the halfs here in NYC, Salty.

      • MG says:

        Salty, I would love to see a post about running and breastfeeding. There doesn’t seem to be much out there on the topic, other than assurances that your milk won’t spoil if you run. I thought it was great that Kara Goucher talked about breastfeeding her baby, but then she also weaned early so that she could increase her training load.

        • Salty Salty says:

          I’ve been thinking about that, actually! I doubt there are any studies about it or only tangentially related. I’ll see what I can dig up :) I was bummed when Kara weaned so early! I get it – it’s her job to be an athlete and as I’ve found I doubt you can train and race the marathon to the best of your ability while nursing. I’d like to see an elite nurse and train and see how it goes. I was surprised I could do as much as I did!

        • Jennifer P says:

          Hey MG,

          I did a lot of running and cycling while breastfeeding both of my kids. The biggest challenges I found were hydration and mastistis. When I started training for an ultra this year I was still nursing my 2 year old and needed to up my calories big time to produce the little milk that she still needed.

          Feel free to email or contact me on Twitter for questions (@jenpinarski). It’s tough – and you’re right, there are no books out there on the topic.

  9. Carolyn says:

    I use Gu packets thusly:

    1. 15 minutes before my normal 5:30pm pre-dinner run (if I hadn’t eaten since lunch). I usually have a 3:30pm snack at work to help fuel this run. I rarely run more than 7 miles on this evening run so I don’t take gels or water with me.
    2. For long (more than 7) runs, I’ll take a gel before I go with some water and plan a route where there’ll be a water fountain (usually a park) approximately halfway where I can take a second packet of gel. Sometimes I don’t bother.
    3. Half Marathon: one prior to the race and I just hit the gatorade at the water stops (usually grab gatorade and water to mix the two together.

    For the most part, if you’re properly fuel up prior to your workout, you really shouldn’t need anything more than water unless you’re doing a half-marathon or more. Just my opinion, anyway! :)

    • Salty Salty says:

      Thanks for your take, Carolyn! I have also taken a gel (out of sheer convenience) before a track workout or tempo during my normal dinner time. When I have the forethought I try to eat a banana or a granola bar about an hour before instead – cheaper and more nutritious! Too bad I’m not always so with it :)

  10. Patrick says:

    Great post. Seeing people loaded with water bottles of sports drink for short runs gets me.

    I generally do not bring anything with me if I am going for less than half-marathon distance. I use gels but only for my 20 mile training runs and marathons.

    • Salty Salty says:

      Drinks and snacks are such a crutch for a lot of people. Even I rely on them more than I should at times. It’s hard not to. Those marketers are crafty :) Thanks for sharing what works for you!

  11. Cathryn says:

    This is fascinating. I’ve just started using gels on my long runs….12 miles…and wonder if I’ve got dependent, at least psychologically!! I’m going to try to save them for races, having read this.

    The recent comments on drinks are interesting…I always take a handheld on my long runs, rarely on anything shorter. Is it not important to drink??

    • Salty Salty says:

      Drinking is a separate issue. The same principles of this post apply to sugary sports drinks like Gatorade, but just the sugar aspect. Does not apply to the fluid aspect. I think it’s important to also train to run a bit dehydrated if you’re training for a marathon. But if you run a 20 miler, especially in the summer and even with drinking periodically, you’ll still almost always end up a little dehydrated. We’ll do a post on drinking soon!

  12. Pepper Pepper says:

    I like my (Roctane) Gu’s and Salty you can’t take them away ;) Granted I probably only use them on runs over 15 miles I will readily admit to popping a Gu 20 minutes before short races, yes even 5Ks! Not really for the energy boost but for the caffeine effect (and not the caffeinated buzz you might assume!) which I should blog about soon!

    Basically any race over 5k and I take a gu 20 minutes prior if I remember them race morning. Any race 10 miles or over I start taking an additional gel at miles 6 and every 5-6 after that. Half I might go with one around mile 7-8.

  13. Jennifer P says:

    AWESOME post. I’ve been trying to wean myself off of gels without much luck. Day to day I don’t run more that 10K so that’s easy, but on the weekends when I get up to 20 and more, then I find myself sucking back at least one. I’m so scared of bonking that the cycle continues….

  14. Ellie says:

    I had never thought about Gu being a problem. I never take it before a run, I do a bagel with peanut butter, banana and honey before long runs (over 10 miles), and just a banana with peanut butter if I feel hungry before other runs. On long trainining runs (over 15 miles), I Gu every 50 minutes or so. I rarely eat anything before my early morning runs during the week (4-5 miles) and never have any problems. I do, however, bring water on most runs in the summer. When it’s cooler, I don’t need hydration for anything under 5 miles, but when it’s hot, I’ll bring water on a 5K.

  15. arthruee says:

    I pop Altoids when I run more than five miles (about one per every 3-4 miles). I find that I don’t really need the gels/energy boosters so much as a small, quick hit of sugar and the cool peppermint clears my sinuses and leaves my mouth feeling cleaner (which helps me even out my breathing). If I do pop a “gel” I prefer the jelly bean kind. They come in a small resealable baggie (that I place inside my waistband) and I can consume as few as I like without wasting any of it.

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