Energy Gels

Energy gels are, in a sense, sports drinks with the water taken out!  A gel, is a concentrated carbohydrate source that can serve as a get out of jail card, a pre-finish top-up, a compliment to your endurance event nutrition and a pre-recovery kick-off for post-event nutritional requirements.

Here, I'll try to cover why the above paragraph is important to you, how gels work, what's in them and why not all gels are the same.  Again, we're dealing in basics as there isn't the time or inclination to get too scientiffiky. 

If you haven't considered gels before then perhaps you should.  If you use them on a regular basis, are you using them for the right reason and are you using the right type at the right time?  Maybe this article can help you with your decisions and save you some money as a bonus.

Why should I consider using gels?
As you all know by now, your body burns glycogen as fuel when you're exercising.  The harder you exercise, the more fuel you use.  As we only have a fuel-tank limited to around 90 minutes (assuming it was full in the first place) we need to constantly refill it if we are to successfully tackle any endurance event. 

You can't "eat" glycogen.  What we eat to get glycogen are carbohydrates, no carbs, no glycogen, no glycogen, no energy.  It's a simple equation.   

As I've covered in previous factsheets, we can't just top up our tank and be ready to go.  If your car's fuel tank is nearly empty you go to the garage, fill it up and can immediately drive at full speed till it's empty again.  No impact on performance whatsoever.  That's because it takes three seconds for the fuel to get from the tank to the engine.  The car eats fuel and we've put fuel in.

Human bodies are more complex, we need to eat food, not fuel.  We then have to digest it and process it to turn it into a useable form of energy that can be stored and burnt in the liver and muscles.  At best this can take up to half an hour.  So if your tank runs out of fuel you're in big trouble for an awful long time. 

Energy drinks, depending on their osmality, are quicker to digest than food but they don't carry the energy punch of a gel.  For a true, quick-hit, you need a gel.  For an energy dense nutritional package, you need a gel.  And for a quick top-up while you're waiting for your food to digest, all together now; you need a gel.  But you can't just throw a gel down your throat and expect to perform.  It's a little more complex than that.

What is in a gel? (Big Picture)
Basically, there are two types of carbohydrates; simple and complex.  Simple ones are high glycemic quick hitters like table sugar, cola drinks and processed foods.  Complex ones are slower glycemic foods like potatoes, pasta, bananas etc.  Some gels have a combination of both so you get a "quick" burst to pick you up and a sustained release to keep you going until your other nutritional strategies kick in. 

The very nature of gels mean they are thick and sticky.  So what's not in them is water.  If you swallow a couple of gels without drinking extra fluids then you run the risk of seriously compromising your performance.  You could actually become dehydrated!  For every gram of carbohydrate you consume your body requires three grams of water to process it.  It will get this water form wherever it can.  If you don't drink it it will pull it from around your body and muscles.  Which will lead to cramps, back ache and headache.  No water, no gain, just pain.

What is in a gel? (More Detail)
Without getting too deep, a basic carb is made up of monosaccharides.  Amongst others, "mono's" are glucose, fructose, and galactose.  Next up are disaccharides (two mono's).  Table sugar is composed of a molecule of fructose and a molecule of glucose; two molecules therefore it's a disaccharide.  After that we get many molecule carbs or polysaccharides.  These are the starchy carbs that contain large amounts of glucose but take longer to process. 

Why is this important?  Obviously the more molecules the more complex the carb and the longer digestion takes,  However, the manipulation of the combination of these molecules allows a timed release of energy that can be controlled and use to aid performance.  A Mars bar doesn't contain many polysaccharides! 

It's also been found that a combination of 2:1 glucose to fructose allows up to 40% greater oxidisation rate of ingested carbs than through glucose alone.  So it's important to ensure you get the right mix of ingredients in your gel and take them at the right time during your event.  Especially when they're a quid a shot!

Maltodextrin is another ingredient often found in gels.  100grams of maltodextrin contains 94% carbs (368 Calories) made up of 4.5% mono, 4.5% di, 4.5% tri, and 86.5% polysaccharides.  A fairly good combination to have don't you think?  So have a quick glance at the label and if it's got this then you're halfway there.

During heavy exercise you sweat out minerals and electrolytes from your body and it's important that these are replaced.  One of the most important minerals is sodium.  So it's good to make sure your energy drinks and gels contain this vital element to performance.

Some gels also contain the anti-oxidants Vitamin E and C, once more this is can only be good thing.  Electrolytes potassium, sodium citrate and potassium chloride are essential in metabolizing carbohydrates and for the proper functioning of muscles.  As is vitamin B. Check out the labels to see if these elements are there otherwise you could be missing a vital, performance enhancing ingredient.

Finally there are the amino acids such as, Leucine, Valine and Isoleucine. These are basically proteins which are broken down and used by the body to help construct and maintain muscles.  Just what you want when you're giving your body a hammering.

To caffeinate or not to caffeinate?  That is the question.  As you can see on the left, there is a caffeine factsheet on the website so why not have a read and make your own judgement.  There is no doubt that caffeine is a stimulant.  Some people are more susceptible to the benefits and downsides of caffeine than others, so you pay your money and make your choice.

The Players.
My personal favourite is the Powerbar Power Gel.  They have most of the things I need, they come in a good size pack 41grams and contain 110 Calories and more importantly I like the taste.  They can seem very thick and hard to get down but I'll give you a tip for that later.

SiS's Go gel has the added advantage of being isotonic.  Which means it doesn't have the fluid drinking requirements of other gels.  A real bonus.  It packs 22 grams of carbs and 88 Calories in to it's 60 ml sachet.  In my opinion, the blackcurrant tastes okay, the others can be called an acquired taste!  Pedal Power have them in stock if you want to give them a try.

Aptonia Energy Jelly, from Decathlon, comes in ten 30g sachets with 19 grams of carbs and 78 Calories a shot.  Basically it has the taste and consistency of runny strawberry jam.  It contains vitamin B1 and is a good emergency gel but lacks the sophistication of the others.  Then again it's a quarter of the price!

EAS's Energy gel contains all the things you would expect in a top brand gel.  It has the added advantage of being re-sealable as it contains two servings per pack.  Tropical fruit or banana are the best tasting.  It also contains Taurine, one of the active ingredients in Red Bull.

Lucozade Carbo Gel comes in a 45g pack and only one flavour, orange.  Not my cup of tea but then everyone's different so don't take my word for it.  As with some of the others, it's a glucose syrup (89%) but contains flavouring and colouring.  It'll give you 123 Calories a hit.

Maxim do two energy gels, a 25g sachet or a monster 100g re-sealable pouch which provides a whopping 300 Calories of energy!  The vanilla flavour is quite palatable with the added bonus of a caffeine shot.  Just like the Aptonia gel it also contains vitamin B1.

The Message
Gels play an important part in eating on the move and for events lasting more than a couple of hours they are a lifesaver.  If you get it really wrong and bonk, a gel will get you to the finish.  They're also ideal for gulping down immediately after a multi-day event as they hit the twenty-minute post-race glycogen window smack where you need to.

To get the best use from them, slip one or two up the leg of your shorts.  Keeping them in your back pocket is good but inside your shorts keeps them warm, which makes them very runny and easier to swallow.  They're also easier to get at when you need them in an emergency.  When the speed's high, or you're in a time trial, the last thing you need is to be faffing round in your back pockets looking for an energy fix.

Never try a new product on the day of a race.  Travelling to events all over Europe has given me access to almost every gel there is.  There's always someone selling a different brand at each event.  I always buy a few but keep them for next time.  If you're going to try one for the first time, do it in training; especially if they have caffeine.

Each gel gives an energy source of around 30 minutes.  That doesn't mean you take six in a three hour event!  If you've kept your glycogen levels topped up prior to your event you should be okay for the first hour.  Then if you're drinking a suitable energy drink during the event you'll also be topping up as you go.  A gel can be an invaluable physical and psychological aid around the one hour mark then possibly again 30 mins before the finish.  Anyway, after three you're sick of the sweetness of them and would kill for something savoury.

During the interim you should have been eating an energy bar, a banana or, depending on the length of the event, a ham and cheese sandwich.  Use gels sparingly, they're an expensive way to get energy into your body.  But boy do they work!