Energy Gels

Thirty years ago your standard marathon runner would be happy with a banana and a bottle of water as fuel for the race, but times have changed. Athletes and hobbyists have become far more educated in sports nutrition and the industry have responded. A number of energy gels are now as important to endurance athletes as the bottle of water, and even the banana.

Whether it’s 20 miles into a marathon or two-thirds of the way through a triathlon, the last thing you want to do is run out of energy – what the endurance world call, hitting the wall. After long periods of exercise our levels of glycogen deplete, and if we don’t replace our glycogen that’s when we hit the wall.

Fortunately scientists all over the world have studied have studied for years to find a way to combat this very problem. Here in the UK during the 1980s a breakthrough was made in the manufacturing of energy gels – a convenient solution to the problems with fatigue. A string of athletic endorsements in the 90s meant that the energy gel was firmly established in the industry and plenty of companies got involved.

Sports drinks were already an established product when energy gels were growing in popularity, but they offered something different. If you’re an endurance athlete it doesn’t matter whether you are in the Tour de France or the London Marathon, a small sachet of gel will always be more convenient than a drinks bottle. The practicality compared to sports drinks helped grow the popularity of energy gels.

Saying that, there’s little point in switching to a more practical and convenient alternative if you aren’t actually getting any benefits. Do energy gels work then? Well when you run your body uses one of two energy sources – carbohydrates and/or fat. While fat is usually abundant it breaks down to supply energy very slowly. So if you’re running at anything above about 50-60% of your maximum then fat isn’t being broken down fast enough to replace the energy you are using.

Only one other energy source to use then – carbs. Well the faster you run, the more reliant your body is on using carbs as the source for energy. Unfortunately as carbohydrate stores are limited they will eventually run out. The way energy gels work is by replenishing these levels of carbohydrates after being absorbed into the blood, supplying nutrients and calories.

The effects of this include:

  • raised blood sugar level
  • delayed muscular fatigue
  • enhanced athletic performance

And because energy gels don’t usually contain protein, fibre or fat, they are quickly digested and get to work instantly. In many ways they do a very similar job to sports drinks, but just have the water removed. This means that if you are using energy gels during endurance exercise you still obviously need to drink water to keep up levels of hydration.

A number of energy gel manufactures have also added other things including:

  • caffeine
  • vitamins
  • amino acids
  • electrolytes

It’s important to remember that energy gels should be used for when you are taking part in endurance exercise – typically lasting over 2 hours. If you want to avoid running out of energy you haven’t just got to replenish energy levels, you also have to ensure they are high when you start. So if you are using energy gels it’s recommended you take them about 15 minutes before exercise and then again half an hour after you start. But remember, if you’re just doing half an hour on the treadmill, they really aren’t necessary.

Maybe you are more traditional with your exercise, that’s fine. That doesn’t mean that modern advancements and inventions are just corporate schemes to rip us off. These supplements can help to enhance performance and produce even greater results.

Ollie Lawrence
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