If you are in a hurry, this is what you need to know:
- Glycogen is the body’s preferred energy source.
- After running for somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes you need to replace Glycogen.
- Gels replace glycogen in a form that is easily absorbed by the body.
- Gels can contain other components that will help your run.
It is said that ultra marathons are eating competitions that involve a run. They have with lavish spreads laid out at the check points. So why do ultra marathoners also take time to find the best energy gels for running for them?
Marathons and half marathons are speedy events in comparison to an ultra. And speedy is how you need energy delivered to your muscles. This is why gels have been developed and are so popular. They give you an energy boost when you need it most.
If you are new to the world of gels, the following information will help you get a view on what they are and how they can be used to help your training and racing.
Different Types Of Gels
All gels do the same basic function but all gels are not the same. Gels are a way of getting energy to your muscles as quickly as possible. They contain carbohydrates that is converted into glycogen that you can use to power your muscles. For a more detailed explanation than that take a look here.
Good gels contain more than one type of carbohydrate that release their energy at different speeds so prolonging the boost you get.
They all have different amounts of carbohydrate. Finding the perfect one for you depends on a few different factors such as race distance and how your body processes the gel. One thing is for sure. You should test gels until you find one that works for you. Use the gels in training and train as you are going to race. Then you’ll know which one will work for you on the day of the race.
Easy To Consume
I ate a flapjack at mile 13 in the 2019 Paris marathon. Id been looking forward to it since mile 6. It took a bit of effort to get it out of my flip belt and into my mouth. I enjoyed it but it would have been easier to consume a gel. But I wouldn’t have been looking forward to the gel at mile 6.
I haven’t done that since in any other marathon. I still enjoy a flap jack but there are parallels between the effort it took to get into my mouth and what my body then had to do to process it. Gels are designed to be absorbed quickly into the body to deliver their punch.
Different Types of Carbohydrates
Glucose and Fructose are two sources of energy that you’ll find in gels. Fructose delivers energy directly. While Glucose takes a little more time to get into your system. I don’t pretend to be an expert in either of them. But I know enough to know that when I try a different gel I need to make sure they are both present.
This works for me but we are all different and we all need to test these things to find out which ones work for us.
Additional Substances Found in Gels
In addition to topping up your energy levels. Gels are tailored for different purposes to target different issues.
The word electrolytes is a generic expression used to describe a range of minerals found in the body. Sodium, calcium and potassium are examples of these minerals. Reduced levels of electrolytes can lead to dehydration.
That’s something you need to avoid as a runner as your performance will drop off a cliff.
A popular practice is to have different gels at different points in a race. For example, in a hot or warm marathon you might need to switch in a gel containing electrolytes. In hot weather you are more likely to get dehydrated, so top up your electrolyte levels towards the end of a race. Again, testing is key here. You should be arriving at the start line of your race with confidence in your gel strategy.
Caffeine is a stimulant that can give you a boost. This could be very useful from mile 20 in a marathon (the real start line). I tried this in the 2019 Edinburgh marathon. It didn’t work for me. I drink too much coffee during the week. I suspect that when I hit my body with the caffeine in the gel my body said “is that all you got..”.
Don’t let my experience put you off. I have a plan to stop drinking coffee to see if the caffeinated gel has the desired effect. Id need to remove my dependency on it in the office and that might be a bridge too far.
I use salt tabs for sodium replacement. I pack them in a pocket in my shorts and take one every 5 or 6 miles after the half way point in a marathon.
There are gels that contain sodium but I think salt tabs are a more efficient way to get salty goodness into my system. But don’t take my word for it. Test this out for yourself.
If you are not keen on the idea of putting man made products into your system. There are natural gels out there for you.
Just a couple of other considerations you need to think about.
Carrying Your Gels In A Race
For me the simple solution is a Flipbelt. I can easily fit five gels, a mobile phone and keys in a Flipbelt. Head out for a run and hardly notice they are there.
There are other options, like back packs and pockets in shorts. For a marathon distance and under, my advice is buy a Flipbelt. I’ve had the same one for four years. I’ve used it in every marathon I’ve done and every training run. It shows no sign of failing me anytime soon.
Most of the gels I’ve talked about come in different flavours. Try a few and see what you like. Also try the tasteless ones.
Final Thoughts: Best Energy Gels For Running
Testing is key. Try different brands, flavours and compositions and how many.
One every hour is a common guide (test this). I take one every five miles. Theory being, if you’ve got there quickly you’ve used more energy. If you arrive at the next five mile point more slowly, you’ve used more energy over a longer period of time.