Possibly the most convenient and effective way to fuel your body on the go is with gels. Whatever your distance from 10k to the marathon and beyond, understanding how energy gels work with your body, and knowing when and how to use them for maximum performance benefits is key.
Why use Energy Gels?
Your body uses two sources of fuel to feed your muscles; fat and carbohydrates. Whilst fat is widely available it’s slower to break down into usable energy making it more ineffective when competing in an endurance event over 2-3 hours.
So this means your body will rely on carbohydrates as its primary fuel source. But your body can only store a limited amount of carbohydrates in the muscles, known as glycogen.
For example, when you are performing at half marathon pace or TT efforts this equates to approx. 90 minutes of effort, for a marathon pace run or sportive you are looking at about 120 minutes (2 hours) effort. These are the key facts to understand when and why you need to start fuelling.
Lets look at how energy gels can help;
1 - How do they work?
In its simplest form the energy gels provide simple sugars that are first absorbed into your blood stream as glucose giving you a spike in energy. It is then absorbed by active muscles and organs. Each gel provides between 15 minutes - 45 minutes of energy with approximately 25g carbohydrates (see above table for comparison), in the form of simple sugars, an accessible energy source for your body to process.
But its not all about the carbohydrates, depending on the gel other ingredients have been induced to to help boost your performance.
CAFFEINE - Can Improve Alertness & Concentration, Reaction Times and the ability to push harder for longer by lowering the perception of effort.
SODIUM (ELECTROLYTES) - Lack of sodium can cause - Muscle cramping, Heat illness, Inability to properly re-hydrate, Increased risk for hyponatremia.
AMINO ACIDS (BCAAs) - Amino acids are the building blocks of muscle - Low levels of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) may contribute to fatigue or the perception of fatigue through a process called ‘central fatigue’.
Note: As caffeine is a stimulant consider alternating between caffeine and non-caffeine gels to ensure you don’t take on too much.
2 - When should you take your gels?
Getting your fuelling right is key, don't wait until you need fuel as this is too late. This is the main reason why people say they are crashing or hitting the wall. The ideal time to consume an energy gel depends on you and your body. The normal calculation is that you will feel the effects of an energy gel roughly 15 minutes after consumption.
Doubling the intake is not the answer, taking two at a time doesn’t mean you’ll get twice the energy burst, instead you’re likely to crash as your body attempts to process the sugar.
So as an example we look at runners over the marathon and half marathon, this is a useful guide as to when you should take an energy gel using a 45 minute consumption gel.
HALF (3 gels)
- Start-line (up to 15 mins before race start)
- Miles 5 & 10
Marathon (5 gels + spare)
- Start-line (up to 15 mins before race start)
- Mile 5, 10, 15, 20
- Have a spare for miles 23+
So you will be looking to take on fuel via gels approximately every 45-60 minutes (5-7 miles) between gels, ensuring not to overload your stomach with the intake of too much simple sugar at once.
WARNING - Guides based on gels to be taken every 45 minutes.
Always check the packaging on energy gels for consumption information. Some brands of energy gels recommend a gel every every 15 - 20 minutes (3 per hour), whilst others are designed to be taken every 45 minutes. Now think about that; would you really want to take on 12+ energy gels over the course of a marathon? Or would taking 6 of a different brand work better? The big issue here is when someone under fuels - 1 energy gel doesn't always equal 1 energy gel!
3 - Are they glupy? What are gels like?
This is a very common question, and everyone has different tastes to what they like. Although usually water-based gels vary in consistency from chewy and thick to a drink-like consistency and with varied strength in taste.
Also now with so many flavours on the market from citrus fruits, to the most decadent in desert flavours or your favourite espresso. The only way you will really know is to test a few different brands to see what consistency and flavour is for you.
4 - Training run test
Practice, Practice, Practice. With all nutrition you want to make sure you have a tried and tested method to get your required fuelling on-board long before race day and this is no different with energy gels. Throughout your training you will be upping the miles and the best time to test products is on the long runs or rides to ensure you know when and which energy gels work best for you.
5 - Always Take with Water
It's always best to take energy gels with water. Without water, they will take longer to digest and enter the blood stream causing a delay in performance. And don't take them with a sports drink unless you are consuming as part of a planned intake, the combined intake of gels and sports drink again puts you at risk of taking on too much sugar at once.
Browse the full range of gels at XMiles - If you found this post useful please share. We would love to know what are your favourite gels - leave a comment below!