What Are Energy Gels?
Energy gels are generally a carbohydrate-rich portable food with a honey or paste-like consistency that gives endurance athletes an easy way to fuel during racing and training for sports like cycling, running, and triathlon. Energy gels first appeared in the sports nutrition world in the late 1980’s following the introduction of PowerBar in 1986, which created a whole new portable sports nutrition category.
You’ll find energy gels come in a light-weight single serving pouch, with 100-150 calories per gel, making it easier to stash in a pocket and consume while out running or cycling.
Why Should You Use Energy Gels In Training And Racing?
For most workouts and events shorter than 1-1:30 hours you won’t need to eat as you have plenty of glycogen stored to fuel yourself. Your stored glycogen supply is the primary fuel source for your working muscles. Most people store between 350 and 500 grams, or about 1400-2000 calories, with 80% stored in muscles and the rest in the liver.
But once you start to eclipse 1:30 to two hours you’re going to need to start looking for ways to replace your glycogen stores or you risk slowing down and hitting the dreaded wall once you’ve tapped out your stored fuel supply.
When your glycogen store has gotten critically low, you’ve bonked. Now your body will have to rely on converting stored fat and proteins to glucose to fuel your muscles, which for most people will limit their ability to operate at higher intensities.
This is why using energy gels or other sports nutrition products during workouts longer than 1:30 to two hours is so important to maintaining your performance.
How To Best Use Energy Gels In Racing And Training
How many calories you’ll be burning per hour is dependent on a few different factors including things like your body weight, event demands, and intensity level. You may be burning upwards of 700 calories per hour, but it’s not a good idea to try to replace all the calories you burn.
You’ll only be able to replace between 20-30% of the calories you’re expending each hour as you’ll be limited by what your small intestine can absorb and deliver to the muscles.
Aim to eat between 200-300 calories per hour. You’ll need to experiment in different conditions and intensity levels to find out how much you can handle.
When And How Often Should You Take An Energy Gel?
Energy gels offer an easy way to help meet these hourly calorie requirements during your workouts and events. Each energy gel is a little different in its ingredients and calorie makeup, however, most will fall around the 100-150 calorie range.
This amount per gel is convenient for taking one every 30-45 minutes to help meet that 200+ calories an hour goal.
Many athletes will use a lower calorie electrolyte drink in addition to the energy gels to help take in more carbohydrate per hour. However, It’s important not to drink the electrolyte drink with the energy gel as it will increase the sugar concentration and likely lead to an upset stomach. Instead, you should drink at least 8 ounces of water with every gel to help absorption.
What Workouts and Races Should I Use Energy Gels In?
Not all workouts are the same and not all energy gels are created equal. Here at Muir Energy, we’ve developed both Fast Burning and Slow Burning energy gels to meet the specific demands of certain races and events.
Here are some examples of events and types of energy gels you may want to consider:
- Use a fast burning energy gel like Red Raspberry every 30-45 minutes during a higher intensity event like a marathon or cycling road race.
- For a longer ultramarathon or century bike ride where the intensity is relatively low you could use a slow burning energy gel like Cashew Lemon, that has a higher fat and calorie content, every 45-60 minutes.
Are There Different Types Of Energy Gels?
While all energy gels are designed with the same purpose in mind, to fuel your body, they are not all the same. You’ll find two main types: energy gels and isotonic gels.
Isotonic gels are designed to be taken without additional water as they come premixed. While these can be handy when you run out of water and need to take a gel, they tend to be much bulkier and heavier than energy gels reducing the number you can carry with you.
On the other hand, energy gels are created with some condensed form of carbohydrates that usually contains very little fluid which makes them lighter and more packable.
Among energy gels, the ingredients used can vary wildly from maltodextrin, brown rice syrup, to real whole food ingredients. Here at Muir Energy, we’re committed to using real food ingredients and making our energy gels organic, vegan, gluten-free, and non-GMO. We’ve found these high-quality ingredients taste better and avoid upsetting athletes’ stomachs. You can learn more about our ingredients here.
It’s common to find caffeinated energy gel options as well, like our Red Raspberry flavor caffeinated with mate. Caffeine is well known to act as a performance enhancing aid that can give you a second wind late in races. It’s best to save the caffeinated energy gels towards the second half of your race when mental and physical fatigue starts to set in. Caffeinated gels can be particularly helpful in long overnight events like a 100-mile ultramarathon.
Keep in mind, you don’t want to use only caffeinated gels as an overload of caffeine can cause an upset stomach and reduce its effectiveness when you need it most during your race.
Can Energy Gels Upset Your Stomach?
One of the most common mistakes athletes make when using energy gels is not drinking enough water with the gel. Unless it's an isotonic gel, you need to be taking in at least 8 ounces of water when you eat one or you risk serious stomach discomfort and cramping.
Another cause of stomach upset that we see often are athletes trying to eat too much. There are a select few athletes who are able to handle eating in excess of 300 calories per hour. For the average athlete, they are only able to process and absorb about 1.0 gram of carbohydrate per minute, so it’s best to stick to 200-300 calories per hour. Exceed that upper limit and you’ll likely encounter GI distress.
It’s also important to note that your gut is actually trainable. Identify the key demands of your upcoming event, like heat, length, and intensity, and practice your nutrition strategy in training so that there are no surprises come race day. Here’s some good research on training your gut that you can check out here.