When you're taking on a half, full marathon or other running endurance challenges, it’s important to fuel yourself properly. Getting your pre-race breakfast planned to a tee and knowing exactly how to refuel after training sessions are part of the sports nutrition puzzle but it's the bit in between – the mid-run fuelling – that can be the most critical.
That’s where energy gels come in. Gels are often singled out as the most convenient way to take on energy on the move. However, with a vast range of products, claiming all kinds of benefits amid a sea of marketing buzzwords, it can be hard to work out what you actually need.
But help is at hand. If you’re new to running gels, or you still find race-day fuelling a bit baffling, here's everything you need to know about the fuel source runners have come to rely on.
What are energy gels?
After running for around 90 minutes your body’s available glycogen stores will be depleted and if you don't keep your carb levels topped up, you're booking yourself a First Class seat on the Struggle Bus. Hitting the dreaded wall, bonking, blowing up – whatever you call it – failing to refuel will have negative effects on your performance.
The problem: it's tricky to eat while you run at faster paces or higher intensities, so gels provide an easy, portable source of carbs – think of them as a concentrated sports drink – that provides energy on the move without having to down lots of fluid or chew your way through solid food.
Where gels differ from a banana, dried fruit and other foods you might also see on a marathon aid station table, is that the carbs in gels are designed to be absorbed more easily and more quickly by your body to give you an instant bump in energy and keep you running strong. Ideally without putting too much strain on your stomach. More on that later.
Some gel varieties also include caffeine to give you a mental boost and electrolytes to aid your hydration, and these can be handy for longer events and hot days. Other gels might also contain branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that aim to help reduce muscle damage and increase resistance to fatigue.
What are the benefits of running gels?
Energy gels aren’t the only way to fuel. You can drink carb drinks, chew on energy blocks or bars, eat bananas or real food, for example. But gels have some practical and physiological benefits over those types of running nutrition.
- No chewing required: Top of the list is that they provide a substantial energy hit without chewing (as you would with energy bars or fruit) or the need to down lots of fluid (as you would with sports drinks).
- Easy to digest: In theory, the consistency of gels also makes them easier on the stomach than solid foods, and faster to absorb, particularly while the body is already diverting blood that would be used for digestion elsewhere to cope with the exertion of running.
- Easy to carry: Then there’s portability. They're designed to be easy to use, made in small sachets that you can stash in a running belt with tear-off tabs at the top making them quick to open. Gels are also designed to have the optimum levels of carbs in each serving so you can manage your intake more effectively than you might grabbing a handful of raisins or jelly babies.
Are all sports gels the same?
No matter which gel you go for, it'll offer a source of quickly digestible carbs but not all gels deliver that energy the same way. Some may be thicker or more watery than others, but this is mostly a matter of personal taste. There are three general categories:
- Energy gels: Your classic option. Some of these can be rather dense and you’ll often need to chase them with a swig of water. On the plus side, the more concentrated the gel the smaller its sachet, meaning you'll have extra space in your race belt. However, unless you’re carrying water, you’ll have to time your gel intake with the race aid stations.
- Isotonic gels: These have a thinner texture thanks to added water and tend to come in bigger sachets, since the added liquid increases their volume. Some people feel comfortable having these without water, but others may like to drink alongside them too. Some isotonic gels also include key electrolytes such as potassium, sodium and magnesium to boost your hydration. Veloforte's nectar range contain enough water to make them super easy to swallow but at 33g each, are still neat enough not to weigh you down.
- Caffeine gels: Some energy gels have added caffeine to pep you up, which can boost focus on short distance runs or save the day when you're at the latter stages of a long event and you need to lift the fog of fatigue. Veloforte Doppio gel packs 75mg of natural caffeine (that's the equivalent of a large espresso) along with 22g of carbs plus essential electrolytes.
When is the best time to use energy gels?
There's no right or wrong answer when it comes to timing your gel intake, as everyone processes sugar at a different rate. As a rule of thumb though, try having your first gel at around 60 to 75 minutes into your run and wait at least 45 minutes between each one. You'll feel them kick in three-to-15 minutes after eating, depending on how quickly your body absorbs the sugar into your bloodstream.
The key thing to remember here, is that if you feel like you're already hitting the wall, you've left it too long to take a gel. Feelings of mild frustration and negativity can also be signs that you’re low on energy. When little things on course start to irritate you there’s a good chance it’s because you’re a mid-run version of hangry!
To avoid this altogether, some runners like to eat to a timetable. It can pay to make a fuelling plan and set an alert on your running watch. Or, if you're doing a long race, you can use the water stations as your trigger to eat and you can easily grab water if you need it then too.
How many running gels will you need for a race?
The number of sports gels you need will depend on how long your race is. For a half marathon people tend to take two to three gels with them, or five to six gels for a full marathon. But it’s also smart to find your own levels in your training runs.
As a place to start, it’s recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine that you take in roughly 0.7g of carbohydrate per 1kg of body weight per hour. If you weigh 70kg, therefore, you should aim to take in 49g carbohydrates per hour. Nb: Your body can absorb up to 90g of carbs per hour.
Types of sugar used in running gels
- Glucose syrup: You may have heard of this before as it's a form of liquid sugar that's also used in baking and confectionery.
- Fructose: This is a simple sugar that occurs naturally in fruit. It's sweeter than standard sugar (AKA sucrose) by 170%, so it's often not a big component of sports gels – it would be too sickly. Also, fructose takes much longer for your body to convert into fuel, meaning on its own it's not a good option for running gels which are designed to give you a quick boost.
- Maltodextrin: One of the most common carbs in gels maltodextrin is less sweet than most sugars. It’s also cheap to produce from the starch of rice, potatoes or corn.
- Glucose: Fructose mix: Glucose and fructose are often blended in gels to give your body the maximum amount of carbs, giving you quick-release energy from glucose and slower release energy from fructose. This dual-fuel combination uses two different transit methods to allow your body to absorb both sugars simultaneously. Veloforte Energy Gels (Nectars) use glucose (from brown rice syrup) and fructose (from date syrup) for exactly this purpose, increasing the amount of glycogen in your muscles and liver, boosting your performance without risking an upset stomach.
What are the possible downsides of running gels and how can you avoid them?
While energy gels are a valuable addition to your race-day arsenal, there can be some potential downsides to using them.
Here's the issue: If you don't take on enough water with your gels, your body will struggle to absorb them effectively, leaving them to sit in your stomach and potentially feed its natural bacteria. This can lead to unpleasant GI drama like cramps, bloating and diarrhoea – exactly what you don't need in the middle of a marathon.
How to solve this: You can avoid this by drinking water with your gels and opting for products which aren't too high in sugar or synthetic ingredients. Veloforte's range of energy nectars for running contains sugar from natural sources such as dates and rice, which are much easier on the stomach than other options.
Here's the issue: Many people don't enjoy sickly, synthetic tasting gels, meaning they put off taking them or even avoid them altogether, which can result in hitting the wall and losing out on a stronger performance.
How to solve this: Opt for gels made with natural ingredients and flavourings, such as the Veloforte range. As the only nutrition brand to have ever been given a Great Taste Award, our products are powerful and delicious in equal measure.
Here’s the issue: As we mentioned above, gels which solely use glucose are digested and absorbed very quickly by the body. This can lead to a powerful energy spike (good) followed by a crash (not good).
How to solve this: Since Veloforte gels blend glucose and fructose, they provide a more steady energy release to keep you powered up for longer.
Practical tips for using running gels
- Train with your running gels first: The whole adage 'nothing new on race day' rings particularly true for energy gels for running. As you run, your body diverts blood flow away from your digestive system and towards the muscles. This means that your stomach may not be well-equipped to process the gels you've given them, which can result in a gastrointestinal nightmare of sorts. By practising with gels on long runs in training, your body will adapt to digesting on the go and you'll be less likely to suffer on race day.
- ALWAYS take your gels with water: Even if you don't feel thirsty, have a few sips of water with your gels. This helps your body absorb them more quickly and stops you getting dehydrated. If you're taking isotonic gels then you might be fine without extra water, but bear in mind that they don't contain as many carbs as other gels.
- Alternate between caffeine and non-caffeine gels: You probably wouldn't down a double espresso every half hour for hours on end, so don't do it with gels. Double-check how much caffeine is in the gels you use, and switch between caffeinated and non-caffeinated varieties to avoid going overboard.
- Don’t mix gels and carb drinks: Stick to water, as mixing carbs from too many products can be unpredictable when it comes to how you'll digest them.
- Don’t wash gels down with sports drinks: Gels are basically concentrated sports drinks, so if you take both you risk bombarding your stomach with sugar. This can lead to nausea or GI distress, neither of which are components of a good race.
- Take smaller portions of energy gels if your stomach is upset: If you find downing whole gels hard to stomach, especially in the later stages of a race, try taking smaller amounts more regularly. If you've got a belt with space where you can store gels individually, that's ideal – you can take a small amount every 15 minutes or so without risking the sachet's contents exploding in your belt.
One last thing – just like your running shoes, the nutrition you take on board to fuel your running should be unique to you and the best way to get to fine-tune your fuelling strategy is trial and error.
Having said that, we’ve worked hard to create nectars that eliminate the biggest issues with traditional energy gels. And so starting with our range is a faster way to happy fuelling.