Energy Gels: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

If you’re new to marathon training, you’ve probably got enough to worry about with the endless training miles, sore legs, and never-ending hunger, without thinking about how on earth you’re going to fuel up mid-run. But it’s super important and is often a massively underlooked part of your long run training prep. 

You might have already read our blog posts on what supplements you should use to boost your training and whether you should eat before a run, but mid-run eating is a little more complicated. Running gels are the most common go-to, but depending on who you’ve spoken to, you’ll hear wildly varying opinions. Some swear by them, others wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole. So, we’re here to explain what they actually are, when they could benefit you, and also to provide you with some alternatives if you decide they’re not for you…

Running Gels: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly | Neat Nutrition. Active Nutrition, Reimagined For You.


What are running gels?

In simple terms, they’re liquid carbohydrates, often used by endurance athletes to fuel their training.

They mainly consist of simple sugars, such as sucrose, fructose and glucose, and maltodextrin; which is a carbohydrate made from corn starch.

Although it varies from brand to brand, most gels provide between 20 and 30g of carbohydrate and often contain added electrolytes and caffeine.


When and why would you use one?

If you’re only running the odd 5-10k, running out of energy halfway shouldn’t be too much of a concern. However, when you start clocking up longer runs, you’ll start to deplete your energy stores and will literally be running on empty after about 90 minutes.

If your glycogen stores aren’t topped up with enough carbohydrates, this is when fatigue, poor performance, bad recovery, and even illness can occur. It’s the point when we tend to lose all energy and hit the dreaded wall – not what you want when you’re only halfway through a marathon!

But aren’t simple sugars ‘bad’ for you? In this situation, glucose or fructose is exactly what you need. They’ll be absorbed quickly and efficiently, which is why endurance athletes top up their energy levels, by using gels, sweets or other high-sugar foods. If you do choose to top up the tank with a sports gel, Isotonic gels are usually the more convenient option as they can be taken without water. 


Why do some people dislike them?

Mostly, this is a personal preference! Diet is a very individual thing, and there are many runners who simply prefer to avoid refined, simple sugars, sticking to a more ‘wholefoods-based’ diet.

Some people do find that sports gels can cause an upset stomach. This is mostly down to the amount of fructose and caffeine in the gels. If this is high, it’s more likely to cause gastric upset, including bloating, cramping, sickness and diarrhea.

If you want a quick and easy way to take on fuel mid-run, we recommend just giving them a go and seeing how they work for you. Do this on a non-important run (race day is not the day to make big changes!) and see how you feel. Try to stick with 25mg of caffeine or less, to begin with, and work up from there if needed. No-one wants to do a Paula Radcliffe after all... 


What are some alternatives if they don’t work for you?

Other simple sugars such as jelly babies or jelly beans or orange slices are a good go-to that doesn’t require much chewing! About 4 jelly babies will give you about the same level of carbohydrates as a gel. These are always handed out by spectators on race day, but you’ll be at the mercy of luck when your body decides it needs a boost! 

If you prefer a more natural source of energy, things can get a little trickier. Some suggest dried fruit or dates, but we find this can be tricky to eat mid-run and can throw you off your stride. We find that baby food is actually a great alternative! It might sound a bit odd, but Ella’s Kitchen makes easy, resealable pouches of pure pureed fruit. Their variety of fruit pouches contain just that – fruit – so they’re all-natural, vegan-friendly and might be easier on your stomach.


Now you've sorted the mid-run refuel, you can concentrate on the epic re-feed to enjoy afterwards! Check out our runner's choc chip overnight oats recipe or our favourite chocolate hazelnut pancake stack... 

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