When Energy Gel Is Best Consumed
Is energy gel better than an energy bar? What is best to eat on a long run and in an ultra race?
Why do I often get cramps after hours into a race? And how can I prevent getting an upset stomach while still maintaining high levels of energy?
I am often asked these questions. Admittedly, there is no such thing like an one-fits-all-answer to this. Beware, there are definitely ways to finish ultramarathons and long training runs in a good bodily state.
One key question to ask yourself is: Do I generally find it easier to ingest solid or liquid foods?
And how do you know?
Many of you, I'm sure, are very experienced in this field and know exactly what your needs are. The majority of ultra runners don't have an easy time meeting their nutritional needs, though, when the muscles start fatiguing and depletion is only a natural consequence.
How can such scenarios be avoided? How can energy gel contribute to the performance without decreasing?
Firstly, getting plenty of calories from a nutrient-dense energy gel has one major advantage: The body doesn't need as much energy for digestion while you can still make sure to get adequate calories.
Secondly, try and test your nutrition in training. Rigorously. And not just on the odd run, but during every single run that exceeds the two-hour mark. Even if you don't feel like eating anything or have just had breakfast.
Treat your race and training nutrition professionally. Practice and consistency will pay you the rewards.
Because that's the only way to find out about your nutritional needs. This doesn't imply to go crazy over calories. Focus on the bigger picture of what you're actually able to absorb and digest.
Take these golden rules to help you determine which amounts of energy gel you need:
- The gastric tract can most efficiently absorb 70-90g of carbohydrates per hour; the assumption that 60g of carbs per hour are ideal is an out-dated theory
- the calories can be made up of solely liquid carbohydrates or a mix of solid and liquid foods
- Energy gels are needed as a partial source of calories but gels alone won't get you through an ultramarathon
- The more you test your food during runs the more your stomach gets used to it; not everyone has a cast-iron stomach yet conditioning yourself to ingest calories regularly should always be part of your training
- Test your nutrition carefully on long runs at a steady pace and also during long tempo runs; during higher-intensity workouts the muscles burn more fuel (i.e.glycogen) and your stomach functions at a different absorption rate; this can lead to a more sensitive stomach
- Experimenting with different kinds of energy gel is important as you'll soon figure out your favourites
- Keep in mind that you might like sweeter gel for a while but after a few hours of running they might become less and less palatable forcing you divert to more refreshing foods
- Make your nutrition an integral part of your ultrarunning; the better prepared you are the more you can relax even against the odds of going through an energy low
- There are always the un-knowns in a race; that's where improvisation is asked of you while somehow trying to keep ingesting calories
As mentioned earlier, on longer runs an energy gel can be a really good choice to support sufficient intake of calories.
In addition to gels, it's a must to drink plenty of fluids, mainly water and electrolyte drinks. Coconut water is
naturally pure without any additives and can also be mixed into your home-made gel mixture.
In order to plan for your energy intake more precisely, explore these further guidelines:
- The calories can come from various sources but consuming energy gel is the ideal option as the individual sachets let you track down your intake very precisely
- Most processed gels contain about 80-90 kcals and 22-24 grams of carbohydrates
- The gel should contain the two essential electrolytes namely sodium and potassium
- Latest research has shown that a glucose-fructose ratio of 2:1 is best absorbed; there are multi-chain carbs which oxidise at a rate of 60 g/h and others that do so at a rate of 30 g/h, i.e. 2:1
- Energy gels help to metabolise these carbohydrates very efficiently providing instant energy
- Never leave your water intake out of sight as ultimately water keeps you hydrated; aim to be drinking 600-650 ml of
water as more won't be absorbed properly; it's easier to take sips every ten minutes than half a litre every hour
- 250-280 kcal per hour is the amount of calories the body can absorb and digest
Here is an example: given that a person burns 1000 kcal per hour during a run, her muscle glycogen stores will consequently empty as there are 2000 kcal worth of carbohydrates stored. After that, the muscles will tap the body's fat stores.
As this is an inefficient way of using energy over the course of more than two hours of running fueling on simple and complex carbohydrates fairly early on remains important as the energy from the carbs offsets depletion.
Your energy gel should contain complex carbs such as maltodextrine and only small amounts of simple sugars like glucose, saccharose, fructose and dextrose.
There are a few brands that promote vegan-friendliness. The gels normally don't contain MSG, artificial sweeteners and are gluten-free which is great for someone with intolerances.
Hammer Gel: offers a selection of many different flavours and the choice between individual sachets and bottles containing a few servings. You can either mix the gel with 150-200 ml of water and even make up a highly-concentrated bottle of gel if you're out for a really long time.
I used a similar method during the Marathon des Sables and mixed all my fuel including electrolytes into 500 ml of water.
The drink was super-concentrated and I took about three sips every 15 minutes after going into the second hour of racing. That way I managed to stay well-hydrated for hours and never had an energy low. And when I was within two hours of reaching the stage goal I'd eat half or a whole energy bar.
Carboo 4 You: The company was found in Germany two years ago and is continuously expanding their range of sports foods including a wide selection of gels. One serving per hour (35 g) with plenty of water is the recommended dose along with electrolyte drinks.
This manufacturer is on the list of favourites as this is useful information for ultrarunners based in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Carb Boom: These gels are made from complex carbs and, in combination, are flavoured with real fruit.
Choose between eleven different flavors and put the gels to the test.
And finally, let me introduce you to two special energy gel recipes that fellow ultrarunner Jane Manthorpe from New Zealand forwarded on:
Chia energy gel for long runs
1/3 cup chia seeds, 2 cups water, 1 teaspoon of vitamin C in powered form
Mix the chia seeds and water in a big bowl using a wisk. Place in the refrigerator and wisk every 5-10 minutes until the mixture starts to solidify and form a gel.
Then take one of your gel flasks that you use on your long runs ~ 8-9 ounce container. Pour in the Vitamin C and add JUST enough water to mix the vitamin. At this point, spoon in the Chia gel and shake. Experiment with the amount of water and Vitamin C to create the strength of flavour and gel consistency to your liking.
20 dates, 1 stalk of celery, 1/2 ripe banana, 1/4 cup of water
Put ingredients into a blender and slowly add water until you get a gel-like texture. Fill into flask. Optionally: Add a teaspoon of dried mint.
For a 50K race I variied the recipe a little by adding a teaspoon of coconut oil and another half a banana.
Luckily I was able to place my own food into drop boxes and grab it at various checkpoints. I started ingesting the gel after 75 minutes and took a mouthful every ten to twenty minutes. The extra fat from the coconut provided me with sustained energy for the duration of the race. It lowers the glycamic index avoiding rapid energy spikes and blood sugar crashes.
In addition, I took a few bites of an energy bar after three hours.
The celery in the gel was not only a reliable source for electrolytes but also very palatable. I virtually 'survived' on the gel, coconut water, water and 1/2 an energy bar.
The nutritional profile demonstrates the simplicity and benefits a performance food can have. The gel contains
480-500 kcals, 130 g of carbs which equals 90-110 minutes worth of energy, 1400 mg of potassium and 32 mg of sodium.
So what's your favourite energy gel? Which other food combinations could you come up with when you're making your own
endurance super food?
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