Energy gels – those brightly embellished sachets that weigh close to nothing that you see being squeezed into every runner’s mouth just before a marathon. With quirky flavours like maple bacon, salted watermelon and tastefully nude, you can’t help but wonder what’s with the gels that make this supplement so widely accepted by athletes all around the world. Here’s a rundown of how these gels can work to maximise your performance during training or competitions.
How do gels work?
The human body typically uses two sources of fuel to generate energy – namely carbohydrates and fat. While fat comes as a slower energy source as it is harder to be broken down by the body, carbohydrates are readily available and is primarily what the body uses to push through a hard run or a strenuous workout at the gym. However, carbohydrates can only be stored in limited amounts. Once our carbohydrate stores are expended, lethargy kicks in due to the lack of glucose to the brain.
Imagine yourself in a video game – life force depleting as you battle your adversary – then you happen upon a power booster, which gives you enough strength to defeat the Boss. Energy gels are the real-world equivalent – loaded with sugars and caffeine, taking one of these energy laden sachets will jumpstart your brain and make you feel like you could run a hundred miles. However, it might not be enough to replenish the carbohydrate stores in your legs.
What is the best way to use energy gels?
Sugars from these gels will generally take an hour to be processed through the digestive system, which is why you will most probably see many runners taking it just before a marathon to give them ample time to process these sugars before the “kick” comes in. However, according to experts, unless you are going for a long marathon and you are aiming to go fast, you would not need the extra carbohydrates. And if you are running for a full marathon or an ultra-marathon, take heed of this good energy replenishing strategy from Britain’s Ironman Triathlete, Chrissie Wellington, who’s goal was to take 90g of carbohydrates per hour with a strict rule of a 2:1 ratio of glucose to fructose. Studies have shown that combining glucose and fructose will enhance our absorption rate of carbohydrates, however experts say that if you consume too much of one or the other, you will feel more than unwell.
As with everything, it is best to do your research and follow expert guidance, but there will be a certain element of trial and error when applying this knowledge to find out what works best for you.
Whilst energy gels provide a quick fix, serious runners need to ensure that they are nutritionally-prepared for big races. Under-prepared runners can depend too much on energy gels to get them through a race, which is not sustainable in the long-term. A clear strategy should be in place regarding when to take the gels, which encompasses everything that you eat two-three days before a race and on race day itself, in order to gain full benefit. By training your body to take in sugars, it helps to increase its ability to absorb faster making it easier for you to maximise the benefits of the gels on race day.
Energy gels are a convenient, fast and compact way of getting instant power into your workouts or runs. Some love them for their proven benefits in performance enhancements and some hate them simply because of their taste and texture. Now that you know how gels work and how to take them, maybe it’s time to give them a try – it could add a whole new dimension to your performance!