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Energy gels offer a concentrated source of energy, making it easier to replace lost energy stores whilst training and racing. Most energy gels are based on maltodextrin which directly provide glucose to your blood stream and provide an easily absorbable form of carbohydrate.
Energy gels are effectively concentrated energy drinks. Therefore they need to be used diluted with some plain water. (The body needs water to digest carbohydrate). Otherwise, you may find yourself becoming dehydrated. Exceptions are Isotonic gels that are less concentrated but also provide less energy.
How many to take? / When to take? / Different types / Pitfalls / Brands
For periods of exercise under an hour it is unlikely you will need extra carbohydrate, your body’s stores will be sufficient. Taking gels during longer training sessions will help to maintain your energy and performance.
It is always best to check the manufacturer's recommended suggestions. As a rough guide you can take on 1 gram of carbohydrate per Kg of bodyweight per hour. A 70Kg runner can absorb 70 grams of carbohydrate in an hour. One or two energy gels every hour of training / racing can be an effective way of meeting your carbohydrate needs.
It depends if you are also taking on energy drinks. If you get 40grams of carbohydrate from a 500ml energy drink, one additional energy gel of 25 grams will take you up to the 70g target. Most races provide water, so it is safer to rely on your own gels rather than hope what’s offered at a race suits your needs.
Note there is a limit to how much carbohydrate the body can absorb – if you take too many gels, you won't be able to absorb the energy but just have a stomach full of energy gel (which isn't so nice). Do not exceed 2 per hour.
If your stomach tends to shut down in the later stages of a long race, try to take on gels before that happens, so you have some stores to pull on. Once your stomach starts to recoil from gels, try taking a quarter of the gel every 15 minutes, rather than pushing it down all at once. This way you still get some energy benefit without your stomach being overloaded.
The more you follow an energy gel nutrition plan during your training, the better it will go on race day. Not only will you aid recovery times by using gels on your training runs but your stomach will get used to the pattern of absorption. Ideally consume gels at the same time periods in training and racing.
Energy gels should be taken just before or during exercise. They work by immediately raising your blood sugar level.
If you are not exercising, the body will release insulin and convert into long term stores (glycogen) actually leading to lower blood sugar levels. Thus if you take energy gels 1 or 2 hours before a race, you can be left feeling tired at the start of the race. However, once you are running, the body will be using all the glucose released. I advise not taking energy gels more than 10 minutes before start of race / warm up.
There are many options for carrying gels during racing or training. Here are a few examples:
Maurten have launched a worl’s-first Hydrogel gel. Sounds like it’s for your car not your long run, right? Wrong. This energy gel provides very high carbohydrate levels in a solution that’s quick to digest and absorb thanks to the biopolymer matrix that encasulates the 0.8.1 glucose and fructose ratio carbs. What this means is you get higher levels of carbs from the same amount of gel, that easily digests and moreover is full of pure ingredients. In fact, there are only 6 ingredients, so the simplicity of this clever gel means it’s easier on your stomach.
Isotonic means that they have already been mixed to the correct water / electrolyte balance. Therefore, you don't need to take extra water. These are excellent if you're worried about getting the right electrolyte / water concentration. They will provide energy and also help provide optimal hydration. The drawback is that they offer less carbohydrate, so you may wish to take them more regularly than pure energy gels. Some runners will save carrying both gels and water by only taking Isotonic gels. However, they contain enough water to process absorption of the gel; they do not top up your hydration levels. For that you need to drink a sports drink or water.
Studies have suggested that a combination of glucose and fructose in a 2:1 ratio can lead to a higher uptake of carbohydrate than just relying on glucose. Glucose has a very high GI index (increases blood sugar immediately) Fructose has a lower GI index and raises your blood sugar levels more gradually. Therefore, this combination can be good for long distance running who are struggling to take on enough carbohydrate during a race.
Some energy gels also include caffeine – a legal stimulant. Studies suggest that ingesting caffeine can boost your performance, though it can vary between individuals. In long distance races, some runners like to take a caffeine energy gel towards the end of the race when they are becoming tired. Some studies have suggested caffeine is less effective in hot weather because it can lead to dehydration. Caffeine also acts as a diuretic making you need a toilet break in a race – another reason to save for later in the race. Whether you want to use caffeine will come down to personal preference whether you want to benefit from this everyday stimulant. Generally speaking, the more you consume caffeine in your daily life, the less you’ll notice a difference. If you don’t consume much caffeine as a rule, you’re more likely to feel the effects of one of these gels.
Sometimes runners take energy gels and concentrated energy drinks at the same time. This means they are consuming too much concentrated energy solution and it can leave you feeling sick and dehydrated – especially in hot conditions.
Test before a big race. Energy gels can be a little sweet and you may find that your stomach rebels from consuming large quantities. In training you should be testing your stomach's tolerance to different makes of energy gels. Then when the big race comes, you won't be trying something completely new that your stomach may not like.
Different brands use the same basic ingredients – maltodextrin, fructose, electrolytes (salts) – and then add their own touches. All the brands we carry are of a high quality – no cheap and fast carbs that are little better than a mars bar! Mostly it comes down to personal preference and what your stomach likes. We spotlight three of our favourites here.
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GeorginaApril 24, 2023 at 3:03amHi I am beginning to run and I’m Just wondering if you have advice? Also regarding the gels are caffeine more for when you can run far distances and the isotonic better for everything else? As I’m wanting to buy some of the High five Aqua gels just unsure which to buy, and could I use these for the gym? Thanks :) Reply
Shankara SmithApril 24, 2023 at 11:57am
Hi Georgina, You won't need gels until you work up to an hour of exercise - your body will have fuel for shorter runs / gym sessions. If you need a snack before you do your run or gym session - you should eat something within 2 hours of exercise, so if lunch was at 1 and you're working out at 5 you want a snack so you've got enough energy to make the most of your session - you can use a gel but I'd go for half an energy bar (Clif bar or Maurten solid). For gym sessions (assuming these are mixed sessions and not an hour on a treadmill), I'd keep with water, that should be all you need as long as you're not hungry going into the session. For runs of over an hour - treadmill or streets - you can take a gel at around 40mins and then every 30mins after that. If you're carrying water with you, any of the gels will work well. If you've not got water, stick with the isotonic gels as they have a balance of energy and rehydration. When it's hot and you're more in danger of dehydration, even if you're on a 2 hour plus run, I'd take a mix of isotonic and pure energy gels so you're getting enough salts to support hydration. Everyone is different, so experimenting with the gels is the solution. Try a couple of different ones and see what appeals to your tastebuds (this is important - if you like the taste you will welcome the nutrients into your body better) and what sits well in your stomach. You can use caffeinated gels for any distance. They work best if you don't have much caffeine in your diet - if you have 3 cups of coffee a day you're barely going to notice these gels, if you don't drink coffee they will give you more of a buzz. None are intensely caffeinated, so you're not going to get the shakes! I don't drink coffee, so I use these gels in rotation with others - if I'm out for 3 hours I'll take 2 gels with caffeine and 2 without. Experiment with them and follow your gut instincts. Your body will show you what it wants.Reply
KarenMarch 27, 2021 at 9:41pmHi I am doing my first marathon in 9 weeks time I have been using sis gels but not sure how often I should be taking them
I aming to run the marathon in under 7 hours
I do sweat a lot and always feel very thirsty when running I am quite big person so any tips I would appreciate Reply
Shankara SmithMarch 29, 2021 at 1:57pm
Fantastic, you must be full of excitement and probably some nerves! It’s important to take food in during the marathon as you’ll need it to maintain your energy to the end, and you’re doing exactly the right thing in using the SIS gels during your training as your body will be used to accepting this energy source. Everyone’s stomach is different and the best advice I can give is to listen to your body through the race – you can take the gels as frequently as every 30min, but only if that appeals to your body. Some get hungry during the Marathon; others (like myself) get less tolerant of any kind of gel/food/energy snack. If you get hungry then that’s actually a good thing as you’re less likely to get tummy upsets and can take the gels. If the race offers snacks along the route you can take a little if it seems appealing and isn’t too foreign to your usual diet, in this case you’d probably want to carry 8-10 gels with you, taking them at the hour and then roughly 45 minute intervals.
If you find your body feels like it’s shutting down your stomach then aim for a gel at 1 hour, then try every 50 minutes afterwards for as long as you can get it down you. I’ve never managed more than 5 gels in a Marathon so I concentrate on getting them in before 15 miles when I know things get tougher on my digestion.Reply
Shankara SmithMarch 29, 2021 at 3:36pm
The other thing to consider is fluids. Check if the Marathon has regular water stations. If it’s a big field you’ll probably have a good and regular supply but make sure the race doesn’t have a history of running low on water. If it’s a smaller field the water stations may be sparser so it’s crucial you know what miles they are stationed at. Hopefully you’ll not need to carry any fluids yourself as you want to avoid that extra weight and hassle but if your friends will be supporting you maybe they can take a bottle for you? If you have any trouble with digesting the water quickly enough (which can be an issue for those of us who are guzzlers and need to drink more than others) then I’ve found the Active Root sachets wonderful to keep the stomach calm, the fluids going down, and quick absorption. The bit of ginger really helps.Reply
Good luck and I hope you have a fantastic experience.
MabelApril 29, 2019 at 11:59amHello, my 15-year-old son is taking part in the Ten Tors challenge, he will be 16 in December. I read on the back of the Sis Go energy gel that it's not to be used for children under 16's. Would it be ok for him just to take it for 2 days to get through the challenge. I would be grateful for any advice. Many thanks! Reply
Reg CuthbertJanuary 14, 2018 at 8:13pmLooking for advice on energy gels for my 13 year old son.
Gets really fatigued playing 90min football matches.
Any help would be great. Reply
Shankara SmithJanuary 15, 2018 at 12:38pm
Usually we wouldn't advise gels for children as the sugar content is on the high side, also if a child is getting fatigued during sports it's an indication that they are over-extending themselves and need to pull back a bit.
I would advise having a word with the coach but also look at what else fatigues him. If the other kids are also getting tired then there's probably less to be concerned about and a snack at half time should do the trick. Of all the gels, the Torq are the ones I'd suggest as they taste pretty nice and the ingredients are good, but I reckon he'd prefer the taste of the Lucho Dillitos Guava Paste which is full of natural goodness. If he can manage a banana or maybe some dried fruit at half time then that would be perfect.
All the best
VanessaSeptember 14, 2016 at 4:48pmHello, thank you for this article.
If I am not mistaken, some gels can then be 2:1 AND isotonic?
I am currently using the raspberry and the strawberry from the brand Torq, they don't need additional water, and are 2:1, with no caffeine. I find it hard to categorise the gels as there are so many different brands and types, it sometimes gets a bit confusing, that's why I always stick to the one I am used to. Reply
Shankara SmithSeptember 15, 2016 at 11:04pm
Once you've found a gel that works for you – gives you the energy you need and your stomach is happy with – then there's no reason to change. Though you can always experiment with new ones on training runs well away from a race, see if there's something out there that works even better for you. I'll often use a combination of an isotonic gel (H5 Iso Gel) and a higher energy gel (Torq or Honeystinger) as I can't always get enough of the energy gels down me and the Isotonic ones work well especially as I easily get dehydrated. It's such a personal thing, you just have to experiment till you find the right fit.
Torq don't give specific advice on how much water to consume with their gels. The mix of carbs in the 2:1 ratio plus key salts – sodium, potassium, etc. – provide a good balance that should digest quickly but I'd still recommend at least a mouthful of water to ensure your stomach doesn't have to pull in water to aid digestion.
I don't suppose there's a reason a 2:1 gel can't be isotonic, it's a question of dilution, but I'm not aware of any at present.
VanessaSeptember 19, 2016 at 10:16pmHi Shankara,
Thank you for your answer. I have tried the Torq bannoffee (with caffeine), worked really well and no upset stomach. Thank you again for this great article :) Reply
Shankara SmithApril 29, 2019 at 1:15pm
That's great news, thanks for letting me know.
All the best with your training.