Energy gels are a fundamental staple for most marathon runners. They provide quick and sufficient energy for optimal overall performance during a marathon. Small packages with concentrated doses of carbohydrates and electrolytes, gels are a convenient and popular source of fuel for serious athletes.
Although gels are the most common and practicable go-to for most long-distance athletes, research shows that you can run a marathon without gels. Energy bars, gummies, isotonic drinks and whole foods have also been proven to be effective replenishment options for long-distance running.
Energy gels have gained immense popularity over the past three decades – and for a good reason. While most runners swear by their positive effects, others firmly refuse to include them in their racing arsenal. What are the benefits of using gels and are they really necessary for a marathon?
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How Many People Run With Gels During a Race?
I decided to poll a community of runners whether they used Energy Gels during races and these are the results I got from 53 votes:
It turns out that 39% of runners choose to eat energy gels only during some of their races. That means for some races they use the energy gels, and some races they don’t.
It turns out that it’s not a requirement to use energy gels for any type of race. Energy gels are popular, but it doesn’t mean that everyone is using them or needs to use them.
What Are Energy Gels?
Dynamite in a small package
Gels are edible ‘goos’ or liquids that boost or help sustain energy levels during prolonged exercise, such as marathons. Small, lightweight and packing a punch, gels are like concentrated energy drinks.
Energy gels are mostly made up of simple carbohydrates (sugars) such as fructose, glucose, sucrose and maltodextrin – the body’s preferred source of fuel during vigorous exercise. (source)
Some gel varieties include electrolytes, caffeine, fats, amino acids and fiber to enhance performance and speed up recovery. Fruit is often added for flavor and antioxidants.
Do You Need Gels For A Marathon?
Professional athletes agree that, even though gels are not entirely vital for a marathon, they are certainly the most convenient, effective and practical option for mid-run fuel.
The Benefits of Using Gels for Marathons
- Convenient: Gels come in small pouches that fit perfectly in a running belt. The tear-off tabs make them quick and easy to ingest while running. The gel’s consistency eliminates time (and energy) that would be wasted on chewing, drinking and digesting other fuel sources.
- Effective: Gels contain the perfect amount of carbohydrates needed to replenish glycogen stores that become depleted during prolonged running. The simple sugars are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream as glucose, providing an immediate boost of energy.
- Boost performance: Ingesting a gel mid-run will delay fatigue and replenish glycogen and other minerals that become depleted during vigorous exercise. Athletes can run faster for longer, with enhanced stamina and focus.
When and How Do Runners Use Gels for Marathons?
As every person’s body is unique, the time, amount and type of gel consumed will be different. Whether you are a rookie or seasoned gel enthusiast, consider these tips for using gels, suggested by elite endurance athletes:
12 Tips to Using Gels For Marathons
- Serious runners always follow the ‘nothing new on race day’ rule: Experiment with various gels during training sessions. This will give you a better idea of the type and amount of gel that is optimal for you.
- Dietary requirements and preferences: The abundance of gel varieties on the market are suited for a broad range of nutritional needs – for example: whole food, vegan, caffeine-free, organic or water-free. There are also different flavor and texture options to choose from.
- Start with small doses so that your body has a chance to adapt and build up a tolerance for digesting the gels, eliminating any issues on race day.
- Read the label: You may be sensitive to specific ingredients found in gels, such as caffeine, preservatives or artificial sweeteners.
- Go slow with the caffeine: be careful not to overdo the caffeine, which can cause anxiety, dizziness or an upset stomach if taken in excess. Rather, alternate between caffeine and caffeine-free gels. Some runners experience severe jitters from eating a lot of energy gels–you have to weigh whether that’s worth it or not.
- Timing and dosage: A single serving of gel usually contains 25 grams of carbohydrates and 100 calories. On average, an athlete would need to consume one gel pouch every 45 minutes for marathons that last for 60 minutes or longer.
- Depending on your body’s digestion, it usually takes anywhere between 3 to 15 minutes until you start to feel the effects of the gel kicking in.
- Half-marathons: you would need to bring along about 2 to 3 gels.
- Full marathons: 4 to 6 gels should be adequate for the race.
- Tune into your body – remain alert for mental and physical symptoms signaling the need for more fuel and replenishment. You may require a gel sooner or later than the suggested time intervals.
- In general, you should drink water with your gels (source): Water helps to dilute the gel, which promotes faster absorption. It also prevents dehydration. Aim to drink at least 8 ounces (+- 240ml) of water with each gel. Some types of energy gels MUST be taken with water, while Isotonic gels may not always require water (always read the directions).
- Do not consume sports drinks with gels: This will cause a sugar or caffeine overload, leading to slower absorption, dehydration or GI distress.
Which Gels Are Best?
Click on the link below to view Runnersworld.com’s Top 10 energy gels for Marathons:
What Are The Disadvantages of Energy Gels?
A number of marathon runners strongly oppose the use of gels for training and races. (here’s a podcast from scienceofultra.com as an example of an expert’s opinion.
From taste, absorption, price and unwanted side effects, here are the key arguments why gels shouldn’t be your first choice of nourishment for marathons:
- They may not be that essential: Energy gels only hit the marathon scene in 1986. Before then, athletes were perfectly capable of running long distances by relying on other sources for fuel and nutrition.
- Energy crash: The concentrated amount of glucose and caffeine in gels that are rapidly absorbed by the body can lead to an energy spike, followed by an abrupt drop in energy. The sudden energy crash can leave you feeling lethargic, weak and shaky.
- Digestive issues: Some athletes battle to digest gels effectively – This is possibly due to the amount of caffeine, fructose or synthetic ingredients present in the gels. In these cases, digestive upset, including nausea, heartburn, reflux, bloating, cramps or diarrhea may occur.
- Costly: Gels may not always be the most economical option. It can be cheaper to purchase alternatives such as sports drinks and energy bars.
- Dehydration: Forgetting to drink -or not drinking enough water with gels can lead to dehydration and poor absorption. GI upset, fatigue and cramping are likely to follow, affecting performance.
- Personal taste: People may find the synthetic taste, texture and consistency of gels gross.
What Are The Alternatives To Energy Gels?
- Cannot tolerate the taste and texture of gels
- Are prone to digestive issues
- Prefer the idea of whole foods
- Or you just need variety for mid-run replenishment
Then try out the following alternatives:
- Sports Drinks or isotonic drinks: Look for ones that do not contain fructose for better digestion
- Jelly Babies or gummies: 4-5 jellies are equivalent to 1 gel pack
- Chews and Blocks: Energy gels in a solid form
- Energy bars: Keep in mind that these will require a lot of chewing!
- DIY Energy Drink: Mix fruit juice with water or coconut water, and add a little sea salt
- Whole foods: Raisins, dates, goji berries, peanut butter and nuts
- DIY ‘gels’: Blend fruit such as bananas, berries, stewed apples/pears, baby food, nut butters and other high-carb foods to make your own easy-to-drink ‘gels’
Energy gels may not be utterly essential for marathons, but they have been proven to be highly beneficial. They are convenient, practical and effective option for rapid replenishment, energy and endurance during marathons. Trial and error will help determine if gels are suitable for you and which type will promote optimal performance.