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Researchers still aren’t sold on hydrogels

A recent literature review finds that hydrogels don't hurt, but they also might not be worth their hype

Over the past two years, hydrogels have become increasingly popular, with companies like Maurten claiming to have revolutionized carbohydrate intake for endurance sport. Endorsed by Eliud Kipchoge, the product undeniably delivers carbs to the bloodstream, but new literature review questions, once again, how effective hydrogels actually are. 

Photo: Bob Martin for The INEOS 1:59 Challenge

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Hydrogel is marketed as a liquid carbohydrate that is mixed with pectin (a water soluble fibre) and alginate (which comes from seaweed) to become a gel when it interacts with stomach acid. Basically, runners drink down their carbs, but once that beverage hits the stomach, it becomes a gel to ease digestion. 

The goal of the hydrogel is to get as many carbohydrates into the runner’s system mid-competition (or training run) as possible, without upsetting their stomach. This is a difficult task as some research suggests that the optimal amount of carbs over the course of a marathon could be as high as 60 grams per hour, with even more over the course of an ultra event (as high as 120 grams per hour). In order to consume 120 grams of carbs per hour, runners would need to eat two and a half bagels every 60 minutes – that sounds terrible while running. 

Arches Ultra, Arches National Park, Utah. Photo: Gene Dykes/Facebook

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The quest to pump carbs into runners is a noble one, but scientists aren’t sure that the hydrogel is all it claims to be. Despite the existing promises that the hydrogel should ease stomach upset, a July 2020 study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics found that while the hydrogels didn’t make athletes’ situations worse, they also didn’t show benefits in terms of muscle oxidization, gastrointestinal comfort or performance when compared to traditional fluid carbohydrate intake. Researchers used studies that examined cross-country skiers, runners and cyclists.

Photo: Cory Jennermann

Hydrogels will certainly deliver carbs to runners’ bodies, chances are that they’ll go down smoothly too, but authors report, “It remains to be seen if they systematically reduce GI symptoms at higher doses approaching and above intestinal saturation, due to specific interaction with the digestive system.” Authors acknowledge that more research needs to be done, specifically on the timing of carbohydrate intake and digestion when intensity (and activity time) increases, as that’s usually where people run into trouble.

The takeaway? There’s no disadvantage to using hydrogel, but at this time, there doesn’t seem to be a huge advantage either. 

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