Sports fuel gels have become a popular type of energy source for long distance athletes over the past couple of decades. Gels provide a dense source of carbohydrates that can be easily consumed while running. The thick, gelatinous 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 races. 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 serving, typically in the form of maltodextrin. Some gels use fructose as well. The high carb concentration provides a rapid source of energy to working muscles. Most gels have a consistency like syrup. This allows the nutrients to pass through the stomach faster than food. A serving of gel nourishes like a sports drink, but in a more compact form.
In addition to carbs, most gels also contain vital electrolytes like sodium and potassium. These minerals are depleted in sweat during intense exercise. Replenishing electrolytes helps maintain fluid levels in the body and prevent painful muscle cramps. The salt also helps with uptake of the sugars. Electrolyte content varies between brands, so athletes should compare nutrition labels. Caffeine is also commonly added to gels for an extra boost of energy.
When to Use Sports Gels
Endurance athletes mainly utilize gels during prolonged training or events lasting 60 minutes or more. Common 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 nutrition for the carb burning phase of activity. Most athletes consume one gel serving every 30-45 minutes of sustained high intensity exercise. Proper timing of gel intake helps maintain blood sugar levels. Excess may cause stomach upset. Careful use prevents energy crashes.
Benefits of Gels
Sports gels offer several advantages over other types of nutrition like energy bars, chews and sports drinks. Advantages include:
- Portability – Gel pouches are lightweight and easy to transport while biking. 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 precise to manage dosing while exercising. Hard to over-consume.
- Variety – Gels come in a wide array of varieties like fruit, chocolate, vanilla and more. Athletes can pick pleasing tastes.
- Caffeine options – Many gels contain stimulants for an extra boost. Provides a physical and mental edge.
While generally safe and useful when used correctly, sports gels do come with some potential drawbacks including:
- Expensive – Gels cost significantly more than sports hydration gel for swimming drinks per serving. The costs can add up over many uses.
- GI distress – Consuming too many gels can cause stomach upset due to the high carbohydrate dose. Proper dosing is key.
- Sugar content – The carb concentration leads to a high glycemic index. Individuals need to monitor blood sugar when using gels.
- Dental health – The sugary consistency can harm tooth enamel over time. Proper oral cleaning is recommended after use.
- Limited calories – Gels only provide carbs. Athletes also need nutrients and fat for balanced 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 gels can provide a helpful source of mid-activity fuel for endurance athletes. Proper utilization can help maintain 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.