Energy gels are one of those things that many amateur athletes use but don’t know if they should be, or what they do. I started taking energy gels about eight years ago when I began training for my first triathlon. At the time there seemed to be a negative stigma surrounding them. I felt like I was Lance Armstrong (without hitting the professional levels) taking performance enhancing drugs. Nearly everyone I spoke to about taking energy gels had the same response: it’s cheating, they aren’t good for you, and they don’t work.
In an age where body image and ‘health’ supplements have been thrust into the public eye, you can’t exactly blame this belief. The sports nutrition market is flooded with energy gels, protein bars, protein powders, creatine supplements and so on. Additionally, many of these make outlandish claims such as ‘bulking up’ quickly or constraining your appetite.
Regardless, today, more amateur cyclists and runners are turning to ‘sports science’ products than ever before in a bid to improve performance. Energy gels, in particular, are now more commonly used and there is a far greater understanding of what they do. Before a long cycle or run, it has become a case of having the right equipment, the right clothing, and the right nutrition. As such, brands have upped their game.
From my experience, I can assure you some energy gels still taste disgusting. Not only do they taste bad, but they also make you feel sick, and the consistency makes them almost inedible. Such is the popularity of energy gels, however, a much greater range of flavours are readily available, and energy gels are much better than they used to be.
Energy gel basics
So, what is the science behind energy gels? Let’s start with the basics – they are easy to carry, easy to consume, and relatively cost-effective. But, most importantly, they deliver essential carbohydrates into the body during intense periods of exercise. Pretty vital stuff for when the going gets tough! They are certainly more convenient than carrying around lots of fluids and a pot of pasta.
One gel alone can carry around 20-25g of carbs so when those carb levels drop during intense exercise, the energy ‘hit’ can really be felt. Within 15 minutes of taking a gel, I’ve always felt a second wind.
So, let’s break the basics down. On a cycle tour, you could store enough energy to go about 30k. Anything further and your muscles will begin to fatigue. If you are a runner doing a long-distance event (anything 10k onwards), then your muscles simply cannot store enough energy. Energy gels provide a no-nonsense boost and are easily broken down to be quickly delivered to the area you need it during exercise.
What actually are they?
Simple answer: they are a combination of fructose and glucose, with the occasional addition of caffeine. They come in a variety of flavours, such as orange, banana and blackcurrant, and often include a range of B vitamins and electrolytes.
How to use them
For all of the claimed benefits of gels, they must be used properly to reap the rewards. Typically, amateurs have little understanding of how to use them. As they continue to grow in popularity, however, more information is readily available on the Internet to educate users – how and when to take them.
As a sports nutritionist, my one piece of advice is always to stay hydrated when using energy gels. Brands are pretty good these days at telling consumers how much water you need to be drinking and how often to take them, but I often see people abusing them. What’s important to remember is energy gels are not a drink. They should not compensate for water.
Equally, gels shouldn’t be used like you are craving them. They should be used to replenish tired muscles as and when you need to. And never, ever rock up to an event without having used them in training (I’d never suggest trying something new on an event day). Using energy gels as part of a training routine will get your body accustomed to them. However, they are only supposed to be for endurance athletes, so don’t go using them for an energy boost during a slow day at work!
Most people don’t exercise intensely enough to use energy gels. But, for those looking to start training for longer distance events such as cycle tours, sportives, marathons and so on, then energy gels should be incorporated.
Is the ‘juice worth the squeeze’?
My experience has been positive. I cycle more than I run and regularly use energy gels on long days in the saddle, particularly during tricky stages of the route. I do know a few people who have used energy gels during an event for the first time and felt a bit sick (this is because their body isn’t used to the large concentration of sugar) but mostly I’ve always found them incredibly easy to consume and easy to carry.
There is nothing worse than ‘bonking’ (when energy deserts you) mid-way through an intense period of exercise. Energy gels arm you with the ammo needed to ensure this doesn’t happen.
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