What are Energy Gels and How do they Work?
A marathon runner's staple, energy gels replenish your depleted carbohydrate stores when running.
When you run your body uses two sources of fuel to feed your muscles, fat and carbohydrates. While fat is widely available it’s slower to break down into usable energy making it ineffective when running a marathon.
Instead, your body relies on carbohydrates as its primary fuel source. As a general rule the faster you run, the more your fuel will come from carbohydrates. But your body can only store a limited amount of carbohydrates in our muscles, known as glycogen; at half marathon pace this is about 90 minutes of running and at marathon pace about 120 minutes of running. This means the average runner will be running low on glycogen stores about halfway through their marathon.
This is where energy gels come in. The simple sugars in energy gels are first absorbed into your blood stream as glucose giving you a spike in energy. It’s then absorbed by active muscles and organs. Although energy gels aren’t a direct replacement as you can’t control which muscles the glucose goes to, they do help continue to fuel your run.
Energy gels contain about 25g of carbohydrates per gel, in the form of simple sugars, an accessible energy source for your body to process. One gel provides about 45 minutes of running but taking two at a time doesn’t mean you’ll have 90 minutes of running, instead you’re likely to crash as your body attempts to process the sugar.
They can also contain other ingredients to help boost your performance for example electrolytes to replace lost minerals, and caffine to open up your blood vessels, speeding up the delivery of energy and giving your mind and motivation a little boost too, as well as flavouring. Flavours are often fruits which can be super-food sources like berries that are rich in antioxidants to help clear the muscles of waste products.
When Should you use Energy Gels?
The perfect time to take an energy gels depends on you and your body. Every runner absorbs and processes carbohydrates at a different rate; some can feel the effect within 3 minutes while for others it might take up to 15 minutes.
As your body diverts blood away from your stomach towards your active muscles, your absorption rate slows, or sometimes your stomach shuts down completely; this is most common cause for unwanted toilets stops during a run.
The most important rule is to have the gel before you need it, not as you feel yourself crashing or hitting the wall. Practise with energy gels throughout your training to ensure you know when and which energy gels to take.
How often should you use Energy Gels?
As your digestion process slows during your run, it’s important not to overload your stomach.
Wait around 45-60 minutes between gels, or around 6-7 miles to ensure you don’t intake too much simple sugar at once. Consider alternating between caffeine and non-caffeine energy gels too to ensure you don’t take on too much caffeine.
What are Energy Gels Really Like?
While energy gels are hugely beneficial for marathon runners, there’s no doubt about it, they’re not to everyone’s taste. Although usually water-based they vary in consistency from viscous and thick to thinner but with a stronger taste.
With so many on the market flavours vary from vanilla, chocolate, and coffee, to lighter fruity flavours like orange and berry. Test a few different brands and styles to find the right consistency and flavour for you.
Before you use energy gels on race day, train with them first. When you run, your body prioritises sending blood to your active muscles, reducing the blood floor to your digestive tract. The lack of blood can irritate your system, as your body finds it harder to digest food and liquid, sometimes responding by trying to force anything out of your system.
Practising with gels, taking little bits at a time as you build up the mileage will help your body adapt to using your stomach while running, causing you less issues on race day.
Always Take with Water
Always take energy gels with water, never on their own or with a sports drink. Without water, they take longer to digest and enter the blood stream.
But as energy gels are condensed sports drink, taking them together puts you at risk of taking on too much sugar at once.