Energy gels are thought of as a distance runner’s staple, but do we really need those little pouches, or is a handful of sweets just as good?
Sports nutrition has developed rapidly over the last few years, with new products hitting the market every few months (or so it seems). There’s no denying that how we fuel and hydrate our bodies can have a huge impact on both energy levels and training results. And with marathon training season in full swing, it’s easy to be tempted into buying boxes of handy energy gels, ready to grab and guzzle on the go.
Go into any sports shop worth its salt (pun intended) and you’ll find a dizzying and colourful array of energy gels and supplements. But are they really necessary? We asked the experts if energy gels are a must on long runs, or whether they’re simply another pre-race gimmick.
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What *are* energy gels?
Energy gels are simply small pouches filled with a tailored mix of thick, sweet gel designed to provide a quick boost of energy to your muscles. They usually contain a combination of carbohydrate (usually in the form of maltodextrin, which is quickly and easily absorbed by the body), and other ingredients such as caffeine and electrolytes.
There are many options on the market in terms of flavour, texture and ingredients, and the choice mainly comes down to personal preference.
Why do we need them?
“We all know that training for long runs and races is not just about the physical element,” explains personal trainer and running expert Emma Bord. “Fuelling our bodies correctly both before and during races is a huge component of getting to the finish line and avoiding ‘hitting the wall’. This is where energy gels or indeed other forms of energy can come into play.”
“When you run your body uses two sources of fuel for the muscles: fat and carbohydrates,” says trainer and founder of wellness platform Made On Demand, Penny Weston. “Since fat is slower to break down into energy, it’s not an effective source when running. Instead, your body uses carbs as its main fuel. Many people use energy gels when running because they allow them to easily take on carbohydrates to replace those that have been depleted, without carrying bulky energy drinks.”
The main point of fuelling is to provide the body with fast-absorbing carbohydrates that will boost blood sugar levels and send sugars through the body and to the muscles.
“Energy gels are often singled out as the easiest way to take on energy on the move as they top up the body’s glycogen stores in a way that is easily digestible, easy to carry and fast acting,” says Bord.
Won’t a handful of sweets have the same effect?
Marathon runners love a good debate, and there’s much chatter online about whether gels are the best way to ingest energy on the go, or simply grabbing sweets from everyone’s favourite kerbside spectators.
So isn’t a handful of jelly babies just as good a way to replenish those glycogen stores?
“Jelly babies are often used as an alternative to gels, with some runners finding them easier on the stomach,” agrees Bord. “These do offer an immediate energy release and are also high in carbohydrates so will do a similar job.
“Taken little and often these can have a similar effect to the gels and many runners find them a much tastier way to fuel. The negative aspect is that they are not as highly concentrated in carbohydrates as some of the traditional gels, so you’ll need to eat more of them to get the same results.”
“Most energy gels not only deliver a high dose of carbs but many also provide electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium to replace those that are lost through sweat,” says Weston.
“So, while a handful of sweets such as jelly babies will give you a carbohydrate boost, they won’t provide the other benefits that gels can.”
What if you don’t like gels?
Lots of runners don’t get on with gels, either due to their taste, texture or they may find them difficult to digest, leading to a feeling of sluggishness – not ideal for smashing your PB.
If this is the case, Bord advises, “There are other alternatives such as high carbohydrate sweets and electrolyte drinks that can also be very effective. Part of the training process is about finding what works best for you as a runner, in terms of how it may affect your stomach, whether you wish to chew or just have a more liquid type of fuel and how you carry your energy stash.”
When it comes to all things race-related, practice really does make perfect, so don’t even think about taking a new energy gel, drink or sweet that you haven’t tried before on race day itself.
How long do we need to run for to warrant a gel?
If you do decide to go down the gel route, don’t go overboard – you won’t need to slug down a gel on a 5k training run, for example.
Replenishing carbohydrate stores during a run is normally required when you’re running for over 75 minutes, as this is generally when energy stores start to deplete,” explains Bord. “It’s important to prepare and plan carefully, as you want to get on top of your fuelling and take your gel before the point when your energy levels dip to ensure there is enough time for the gel to get around the body.”
It’s all individual
How quickly you deplete your glycogen stores and need another injection of energy is very individual and will vary from runner to runner. It’s vital to try out different timings and products on your training runs, to ensure you are topped up and raring to go on race day.
“One of the most important things about gels and fuelling is to practise it within your training and this is because everyone is different,” agrees Bord. “Some people use up stores quicker than others, other bodies take longer to absorb the fuel therefore need to take on energy earlier than others.”
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Once you’ve had your first gel around 75 minutes into the race, the experts agree that most people will need to take a sachet every 30-45 minutes until the end of the race – but again, you must work out what works for you and your body.
“Depending on the type of fuel you are using (drinks, sweets or gels), these can take varying times to get into the body and to the muscles so again how often you take these is very personal,” advises Bord.
Not all gels are created equal
There are so many gels on the market, so again, it’s a case of trial and error. “The traditional energy gels are higher in carbohydrates and this increased sugar content may make them harder for some people to digest,” says Bord.“They are thicker in consistency and require water alongside to aid digestion as they are so concentrated, which can leave some runners feeling heavy.”
“All gels are different and there are a huge number of brands out there,” agrees Weston.“Those containing caffeine can help to improve endurance and cognitive function and reduce fatigue, while electrolytes are important for replacing lost sodium.”
While so much choice can be confusing, it does mean that, with a little planning and experimentation, you should be able to find a gel to suit you. Good luck!
3 running gels to try
SiS Go Isotonic Energy Gels
Market-leading brand SiS combines a maltodextrin carbohydrate source in a low-sugar gel, to improve performance with no need for extra water. This mixed flavour pack allows you to try different flavours and choose your favourite.
Shop SiS Go Isotonic Energy Gel 15 Mixed Pack, £16
Veloforte Mixed Energy Gels
These plant-based gels are easy on the stomach and the environment, with 30% less plastic packaging as well as a gluten-free formula. The flavours are appealing too – date, lemon and ginger makes a welcome change from orange and lemon.
Shop Veloforte Mixed Energy Gels, 12 pack, £21.99
High Five Energy Gel with Slow Release Carbs
These energy gels with slow release carbs also contain magnesium and 70 other minerals and trace elements. Suitable for vegetarians and vegans, the flavours are more traditional, but this is a tried and tested brand with great results.
Shop High Five Blackcurrant Energy Gel with Slow Release Carbs, 14 pack, £24.49
Images: Getty; SiS; High Five; Veloforte
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