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Accessible energy: gels help go the distance

Energy gels are an efficient and effective means of fuelling during competition and can offset glycogen depletion and improve performance.

For physical activity sessions lasting longer than about 75 minutes — be it a training run, a workout or a race — fuelling with a source of simple sugar/carbohydrate is proving to be smart science.

Whether this comes from a sports drink or from a gel, ingesting the right type and amount of sugars to offset the use of glycogen stores can increase performance and enhance energy levels.

Research has shown that the body is capable of processing between 30-60g of carbs per hour (up to 1.0g/min) and perhaps more, during strenuous exercise (i.e. a race effort). Energy gels are a common and concentrated source of simple sugars that can be easily carried and consumed during competition.

Below you will find some nutritional info for several common energy gels (the specific flavour is provided in the brackets) available on the market. This info includes the total energy/calories, the energy from sugars/carbs, from fat, as well as the sodium (Na) and potassium (K) values.

Note: You should always test the products prior to using them in a race or competition as you’ll want to know how your body responds. Many gels cause mild GI/stomach discomfort that can severely interfere with performance.

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Remember the golden rule of racing: Never try anything new on race day!

Powerbar Performance Gel (Strawberry Banana): 110kcal; 27g carbs; 0g fat; 200mg Na; 20mg K

ELoad ENERGY GELS (Lemon): 110kcal; 26g carbs; 0g fat; 60mg Na; 15mg K

GU Energy Gel (Strawberry Banana): 100kcal; 25g carbs; 0g fat 50mg Na; 40mg K

Cliff SHOT Energy Gel (Razz): 100kcal; 24g carbs; 0g fat; 90mg Na; 55mg K

Honeystinger Organic Energy Gels (Fruit Smoothie): 100kcal; 24g carbs; 0g fat; 50mg Na; 50mg K

carb Boom! Energy Gel (Strawberry Kiwi): 110kcal; 27g carbs; 0g fat; 50mg Na; 50mg K

Also note that the above gels do not contain any caffeine, which is available in other flavours from the above brands. Caffeine does have an impact on sports performance and may be something to consider, but that is a post for another day.

The take-home message is that with a plethora of options available to you, it’s important to find the type and flavour of gel that works best for you. The precise amount will also vary but should not exceed two gels per hour (I personally take one 15min prior to a race and then one every ~45 minutes).

The concentration of electrolytes (sodium and potassium) are also an important component of choosing which gel is best tolerated and will again require some trial and error on your part. Some studies have found that replacing lost electrolytes in the ratio of 4:1 Na:K is preferred as it most closely mimics that lost to sweat during exercise.

Energy gels are an efficient and effective means of fuelling during competition and can offset glycogen depletion and improve performance. Aim to ingest between 30 and 60g/hour of exercise or the equivalent of one to two energy gels, which should be combined with water intake and perhaps sports drink as well. Be sure to find a gel that is well tolerated and doesn’t cause GI distress.

What do you do to fuel during a race? How many gels can you handle?