Whether it’s a long training ride or a sportive you’re tackling, if you want to go the distance in the saddle, you need to fuel correctly. Turning the legs over for 90 minutes or more depletes glycogen stores – the body’s favoured source of energy during exercise – so if you want to bypass the bonk, you need to take on some extra carbs to combat this.
On-the-go sports nutrition comes in many forms, from drinks to real food, energy bars and cycling gels. Space efficiency, rapid absorption and the lack of chewing are just some of the benefits gels offer. They’re also a good option on rides where you know you need calories but you really can’t face food.
But not all gels are created equal. Choose the wrong gels and you could end up forcing down chemical gloop at the critical point in a race, suffering rush-and-crash energy rollercoaster or worse, having an enforced mid-ride pit stop. So before you fill your jersey pockets to the brim, however, these eight tips should help you find the best energy gels for cycling.
1. Save gels for rides of 90 minutes and over
If you’re going out on a short spin and you’ve eaten well during the day or the night before, you should be fine fuelling your ride with water alone. On longer rides over 90 minutes you’ll want to think about packing some fuel.
Fat-adapted athletes aside, during exercise your body’s favoured energy source is carbohydrate, which is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. When you exercise hard or for longer durations, these stores deplete, resulting in an energy slump, fatigue and, in some cases, the old crash and burn.
Finding a source of nutrition that works for you is a personal thing and it’s wise to try things out in training. However, gels are a good option to have to hand. They’re designed for rapid-release energy so the carbohydrates hit your bloodstream faster – handy when you think you might have overcooked it and need energy quick!
Many cyclists also choose gels for time trials and faster sessions or races when they really don’t want to think about chewing. Gels come in handy on endurance rides too, when you might want to mix up your fuel sources, alternating between drinks, gels and real food, to prevent palate fatigue.
2. Don’t overdo it on the carbs
Everyone’s energy requirements differ during exercise, depending on a number of factors including size, genetics and intensity. Finding the quantities you personally need to refuel is also a case of trial and error but as a general rule:
British Cycling recommend taking on around one gram of carbohydrate per kilo of bodyweight per hour during racing – so if you weigh 70kg, this would be around 70g of carbs.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommend 30-60g carbohydrates per hour for moderate level cycling and up to 90g during ultra-endurance events. These carbohydrates can come from any source – real food, drinks, gels etc. It’s not an excuse to have a full-blown picnic on the bike though.
A mistake many newer cyclists make is to take on as many carbs as possible in the hope of getting an extra energy hit. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.
Your body can only absorb around 60g of carbohydrate per hour. This can be increased to 90g by using dual-source carbohydrate options such as Veloforte energy nectars, which contain 22g of carbs per 33g sachet, derived from all-natural glucose and fructose fruit sources.
The two forms of carbohydrate in dual-fuel options enter the bloodstream via different means, which takes some of the pressure off your gut and is proven to up your absorption rate.
Any additional carbohydrates on top of this, or more than 60g of single source carbs, won’t give you extra energy. Instead they can cause bloating, GI issues and general discomfort as your body struggles to digest them.
3. Find the best time to take on gels
We’ve said it before and we’ll keep saying it because it’s crucial, nutrition is personal and something to experiment with in training. The time it takes for the energy from a gel to hit your bloodstream can vary quite significantly from person to person. Some people will be dancing in the saddle as soon as they down a sachet while others may need up to 15 minutes to feel the effect.
If you know you’re out for a longer ride then don’t wait till you’re hungry before taking on extra calories. We generally advise you to take your first Veloforte energy nectar somewhere between 60 and 75 minutes into a workout, and every 45 minutes or so from then on depending on how long the extra energy seems to last for you and how intense your workout is.
4. Get your stomach used to gels
Not all gels are created equal and some people find certain gels create issues – particularly for sensitive stomachs – as their bodies find it hard to digest the often highly processed ingredients while working out.
Veloforte nectars are designed to be gentle on the tummy by using all-natural ingredients such as unrefined brown rice syrup, maple syrup and dates for rapid-release energy and real fruit juices for clean, natural flavouring. The dual-carbohydrate combination of glucose and fructose is also scientifically proven to cause less GI issues than single source carbs.
If you do have a sensitive stomach, increasing your gel usage as you increase your mileage in training will allow your body to adapt to digesting as you cycle.
5. Combine cycling gels with real food
If you don’t want to rely on gels alone, you need to find gels that can work in tandem with your other food options. Veloforte’s Nectars work as part of a complete on-the-bike nutritional strategy and taking on a mixture of energy nectars, Veloforte bars and sports energy drinks on endurance rides prevents that over-full feeling you can get when you only eat real food. Adding in our bars on longer rides also gives you something solid to chew on when you fancy.
That switch up in textures and flavours really comes into play on longer days in the saddle. Looking forward to your next snack or gel can also be a good distraction strategy, taking your mind off that burning feeling in your thighs as you climb.
6. Make sure you drink enough water with your gels
You should be drinking little and often on the bike to ward off dehydration but unless you’re taking isotonic gels that have a higher water content already, make sure you take a sip with your gels too. This aids the absorption process - It’s best to stick to plain water when you’re washing down a gel.
Having one bidon with a hydration drink such as Veloforte Attivo, Vivo or Solo can help you get your intake right.
Try to avoid taking gels with a carbohydrate-rich sports drink as the energy derived from combined sources – and the impact on your stomach – may be unpredictable.
7. Look for cycling gels with a glucose:fructose mix
If you want a steady flow of energy rather than the quick-hit-and-slump that comes with some sugary foods, look for a dual-carbohydrate mix such as the glucose:fructose combination used in Veloforte energy nectars.
The mix we use is purposely designed to give you a steady energy release and keep your blood sugar on more of an even keel. The glucose from unrefined brown rice syrup delivers rapid-release energy straight to your muscles while the fructose from date syrup is slower release to keep you going for longer.
8. Try caffeine cycling gels for an extra boost
If you want an extra boost of alertness, then energy gels with added caffeine – such as the Veloforte Doppio, which contains 75g of natural caffeine from guarana, the same amount as a large espresso – is a smart choice.
Caffeine doesn't actually give you more energy but it is nature's secret weapon, acting directly on your central nervous system, improving reaction speed, alertness and concentration whilst reducing your perception of exertion – so those hills should feel easier.
Keen to learn more? Find out why we’ve created Veloforte Nectars and what sets them apart from traditional energy gels.