Sports energy gels have become a popular kind of nutrition for long distance athletes over the past couple of decades. Gels provide a potent source of energy that can be easily consumed while training. The thick, viscous consistency allows the nutrients to pass through the stomach and be digested quickly. Athletes use gels as a way to restore glycogen stores and prevent hitting “the wall” during competitions. Here is an overview of how sports gels work and who may benefit from using them.
Sports packs contain between 20-40 grams of carbohydrates per packet, typically in the form of maltodextrin. Some gels use fructose as well. The high carb concentration provides a quick source of fuel to taxed muscles. Most gels have a thickness like syrup. This allows the nutrients to pass through the stomach faster than solids. A serving of gel nourishes like a sports drink, but in a more portable form.
In addition to carbs, most gels also contain key electrolytes like sodium and potassium. These minerals are depleted in sweat during intense exercise. Restoring electrolytes helps maintain fluid levels in the body and prevent painful muscle cramps. The sodium also helps with absorption of the sugars. Electrolyte content varies between brands, so athletes should compare nutrition labels. Stimulants is also commonly added to gels for an extra jolt of energy.
When to Use Sports Gels
Endurance athletes mainly utilize gels during prolonged training or events lasting 60 minutes or more. Popular uses include:
- Marathon or half marathon races
- Century or half century bike rides
- Triathlon competitions
- Soccer, hockey, lacrosse games
- Hiking or backpacking excursions
Gels provide quick fuel for the glycogen burning phase of activity. Most athletes consume one gel serving every 30-45 minutes of sustained strenuous exercise. Proper pacing of gel intake helps maintain blood sugar levels. Excess may cause stomach upset. Moderate use prevents energy crashes.
Advantages of Gels
Sports gels offer several advantages over other forms of fuel like energy bars, chews and sports drinks. Advantages include:
- Portability – Gel pouches are compact and easy to carry while running. Minimal packaging also produces less waste.
- Rapid absorption – The viscous liquid consistency gets digested quickly relative to bars. Provides a fast energy boost.
- Precise dosing – With each pouch containing one serving, gels offer easy to manage dosing while exercising. Hard to over-consume.
- Variety – Gels come in a wide selection of varieties like fruit, chocolate, vanilla and more. Athletes can pick pleasing tastes.
- Caffeine options – Many gels contain caffeine for an extra boost. Provides a physical and mental edge.
While generally safe and effective when used correctly, sports gels do come with some potential drawbacks including:
- Expensive – Gels cost significantly more than sports drinks per serving. The costs can add up over many uses.
- GI distress – Consuming too many gels can cause stomach upset due to the large carbohydrate dose. Careful dosing is key.
- Sugar content – The carb concentration leads to a high glycemic index. Diabetics need to monitor blood sugar when using gels.
- Dental health – The sugary consistency can damage tooth enamel over time. Proper oral cleaning is recommended after use.
- Limited calories – Gels only provide carbs. Athletes also need protein and fat for complete sports nutrition.
- Not thirst quenching – Gels hydrate via sugars and electrolytes but do not quench thirst like water or sports drinks.
While not necessarily recommended for everyday use, sports hydration gel for ultramarathon gels can provide a helpful source of mid-activity fuel for endurance athletes. Proper utilization can help sustain energy levels and stamina during prolonged training and events. Athletes should test different brands and flavors during training to determine which gels work best for their needs.