Like Marmite, some love ‘em, some hate ‘em, but how do gels compare to real food as a fuel source for trail runners? As featured in this edition of Trail Running Magazine...............
Energy gels are a useful way to replenish your muscles when their carbohydrate stores start to become depleted after over an hour of trail running. They usually contain 20-30g carbs concentrated in a small, light package, often glucose or the more neutral-tasting maltodextrin which deliver energy the quickest at 1g/min. Depending on bodyweight and exercise intensity the guidelines are to consume 30-60g carbs each hour, so that’s 1-3 gels. Your body can even absorb 90g carbs per hour if taken as a 2:1 gel blend of maltodextrin:fructose. Most gels also contain electrolytes to aid hydration when taken with 150ml water, like sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium. Sodium is the only really essential electrolyte needed, but requirements are individual and vary with sweat rate and running environment. Some gels contain caffeine, vitamins and even natural products such as chia seeds or ginseng. However, gels are expensive and some people find them hard to stomach, so why not use everyday food instead? Two reasons: practicality and tolerance. Carrying food while out running is a physical burden, a bouncing backpack can pulverise a nice quiche, chewing and digesting can be difficult and some real food can go off in the heat or on multi-day races. Gels on the other hand provide a really practical, handy packet of concentrated energy in small, light packaging and can be digested without chewing. Sadly, due to concentrated carb levels, they can cause upset stomachs, especially if you don’t drink enough water (aim for about 150ml per gel) as the absorption rate will slow and you may find yourself looking for the nearest bush. To avoid this, train your gut before racing: try one gel first and then increase the number slowly over subsequent runs until you can manage your 30-60g carbs per hour.
Despite the science, gels versus food is a still very much a personal preference and you need to practice to find out which one or what food or drink fuels your body most efficiently. Love them or hate them, the overall truth is that, if used under the right conditions, gels provide trail runners with a portable source of high concentration fuel to ensure you don’t hit that dreaded wall. If taken correctly, gels can power you over those extra miles. Here are six of the best, tested for taste and content, try them all out and see which one ‘gels’ with you.
Gels v teeth Tooth decay in athletes is another downside to sports products. Due to the high sugar content and decreased salivary flow when running, rotting teeth is becoming more common in those that are regular users. Only use gels when necessary, on shorter runs water will suffice. When you do take gels, drinking water will help clear some of the gel and increase salivary flow. Additionally, swallow gel immediately, and don’t hold it in your mouth.