The Pros and the Cons of Energy Gels for Runners
Tell me if you've been here before:
You're at your local running store and you're facing the wall (yes, wall!) of energy gel options. There are tons of different flavors and brands - from plain to strawberry to birthday cake. They boast their sodium and caffeine and amino acid content.
You've likely heard that you're supposed to take gels or "goo" on a long run before. You've probably even tried at least one or two kinds in the past. You probably have a running friend that has a favorite kind and maybe another running friend who never takes them at all.
It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the options - and it's hard to know the difference between them all. And besides, you've probably heard a horror story about someone who took one and ran to the bathroom faster than the finish line (hopefully it isn't YOUR story!!).
What are gels, anyway?
Energy gels are concentrated sources of simple carbohydrates in a "gel" format that you take to give you fast energy during a workout.
Usually gels are made of one or two types of sugars like glucose, fructose, or maltodextrin. These sugars are rapidly digested and transported to our muscles so we can use them quickly. They rarely have any fat, fiber, or protein (which can slow down digestion).
Most gels (like regular Gu) are "hypertonic" meaning they're much more concentrated in sugar than the sugar circulating in your blood. You should take these gels with water (or at least some sports drink) to help prevent bloating and other GI issues.
Some gels (like this Gu Liquid Energy) are "isotonic" meaning their concentration is similar to that of the cells in your body. They empty from the stomach more rapidly and don't require that you drink them with extra fluids.
The Pros of Taking a Gel
1️⃣ They provide an easy way to give your body the simple carbs it needs to meet your carb goals during long runs. Without some simple carbs, you're much more likely to hit the wall.
2️⃣ They come in a huge variety of flavors to meet your preferences.
3️⃣ They're widely available online and in running or sporting goods stores.
4️⃣ They're easily packable and portable.
5️⃣ Most varieties are pretty affordable, especially if you buy in bulk!
6️⃣ Many of them have added caffeine (to improve endurance), added electrolytes (to help replace what you lose in sweat), or added BCAAs (for your muscles).
7️⃣ They sometimes contain more than one type of carbohydrate - which is beneficial because it allows your body to absorb more.
8️⃣ They typically have more carbohydrates than what you can get in 8 oz of sports drink - a huge benefit if you're trying to get 60+ grams per hour!
The Cons of Taking a Gel
1️⃣ You should wash them down with fluid - especially the hypertonic kinds (which is most of them!). If it's race day, you should make sure you take a gel right before you get to a water stop so you have some liquids to wash them down!
2️⃣ They're concentrated sources of sugar, so they can be hard on your stomach (bloating and bathroom stops!) if you're not used to them and if you don't take them with fluids.
3️⃣ Each kind is just a little different. Please practice using them before race day and take the time to figure out what kind works best for your body!
4️⃣ Many varieties don't have enough electrolytes to replace what you'll lose in your sweat, so you'll have to get additional salt etc. from sports drinks, salt tabs, or another source.
5️⃣ They don't hydrate you, so you'll still need to figure out how to drink enough fluids on the run!
6️⃣ Isotonic gels are much more "bulky" than the regular ones because they basically already have water added to them.
Which gels are the best?
This comes mostly down to personal preference. In general, most brands will provide you with 20-25 grams of carbs and approximately 100 calories. Beyond that, the textures and cost can vary quite a bit. Some varieties have added electrolytes or caffeine, some don't. Some brands have LOTS of flavors, some only offer 1 or 2 flavor options.
While I believe you should choose what works best for you, here are some brands to consider:
Gu is available nearly everywhere (at least in the US) and has the largest flavor variety that I've seen. They tend to be pretty cheap, too.
For most people, Huma gels are easy on the stomach and well tolerated if you have trouble with more "traditional" options.
Maurten and other "isotonic" gels like SIS don't require water or other fluids to wash them down.
Spring Energy is made with all "real food" ingredients like basmati rice and fruit.
UCAN Edge has "slower" carbs that cause less of an energy spike.
What if I don't tolerate gels?
This might not actually be true. A lot of people either don't take gels correctly or only try them once -- and often that one time is in less than ideal conditions. Trust me - there's no one special formula that works for everyone (or else there wouldn't be so many different kinds of gels out there!).
Not only have I experimented with dozens of types of sports gels myself, but I've guided dozens of athletes to figure out what works best for them, too. Many runners thought they couldn't take gels before working with me, but now they know not only which ones work best for their bodies, but they also now best how and when to take them so they don't have any "tummy troubles" and never "hit the wall" anymore.
If you want to run for long distances (or cycle, or swim), you're going to have to give your body some energy during long sweat sessions - and gels are an easy way to do so. I can give you guidance not only on how to do this the right way, but make sure you're doing ALL the right things to run well and feel good doing it.
That's why I offer a limited number of free strategy sessions each week. We'll discuss what you've tried and what has and hasn't worked and dig into why. We'll then come up with the next steps you can take to finally figure out YOUR best fueling strategy so that it's that much easier to finally reach all your running goals.
Hurry though, these spots can go fast!