In the past few years, energy gels have become the
preferred choice for most long distance athletes because of the consistent
texture and the fact that they are easy to consume. They are digested and
absorbed quickly, resulting in a quick and easy surge of energy during a race,
plus they’re easy to carry on you on the road!
Energy gels are essentially concentrated sports drinks
which contain about 80 to 100 calories each, and all energy gels need to be
taken with water to ensure that they’re digested properly. There is a huge
variety of tastes and textures on the market today, so it is worth testing a
range of gels during your long training runs in order to find a product that
works for you. Here’s what to look for in a gel:
Carbohydrate: 80-100 calories in
the form of 70-80% maltodextrin and 30-20% fructose. This combination creates a
complex carbohydrate, which has been shown to digest very quickly. Maltodextrin
has little or no flavour, even at high concentrations, which helps energy gels
to not be overly sweet.
Amino Acid Blend: Helps to combat
muscle fatigue, assimilate the conversion of carbohydrates into energy, and
helps with mental focus.
Electrolytes: Sodium and potassium
are important to balance the electrolyte levels in your body. Potassium also
reduces cramping and improves overall fluid movement in the body’s cells. Both
of these electrolytes are lost through sweat during exercise and should be
replaced throughout your run or race.
Caffeine (optional): Caffeine is great for
improving performance and speeding the absorption of carbohydrate, but too much
can upset the stomach. Play around with energy gels that contain caffeine and
ones which do not, to determine which option is best suited for you.
WHEN TO TAKE THEM
The timing of when you should take your gels is an
individual choice. Each athlete processes carbohydrate at a different rate.
This variation in absorption rate has to do with how well your stomach reacts
to the energy gel. When running at high intensity for a long duration, your
body often diverts blood away from the digestive tract to the legs to help your
legs continue to move. Sometimes your body may shut the gut down completely, or
it may just slow down the digestion and absorption process.
By taking the energy gels early in your race, when your
body is unlikely to be under great stress, you have a better chance of
processing the sugars faster. It would be best advised to take your first
energy gel somewhere between the first 30-45 minutes of the race. Because the
digestion process will be slowed or halted the further you get into the race,
you need to be careful not to overload your stomach. I would suggest waiting
about 45-60 minutes between gels before taking another one.
It is important to consume approximately 250ml of
water with every energy gel sachet, but if you are consuming some form of
energy drink in combination with energy gels, it is important to reduce your energy
gel intake. You should then consume one energy gel sachet only every 90-120
Your digestive system is trainable, so if you consume
energy gels during training, particularly if you do it at set intervals that
correlate to when you will take them during your big race, your body will learn
to keep the digestive process running and you will digest them more readily.
This is why it’s critical to practise your exact fuelling strategy as often as
possible! Also, energy gels may be a little sweet for you, and your stomach
rebel from consuming large quantities, so you should be testing your stomach’s
tolerance to different makes and flavours in training. Then, when the big race
comes, you won’t be trying something new, and you’ll know you can race hard!