Ever wondered if elite marathon runners use gels when they are competing? You hardly ever see them grappling with a gel packet on TV like the rest of us mortals. Gels are probably the most convenient way for runners to get their carbohydrate boost without missing a stride. Some elites have their gels mixed into their water, having it wait at the water station for them.
Elite marathon runners are human, believe it or not. They also need a boost in carbohydrates, typically about 60g per hour, and definitely before the dreaded 20-mile mark. So, most of them will take gels, specialized energy drinks, or have a ready-made gel drink waiting for them at the water stations.
Most marathon runners start to “hit the wall” when hitting the 20-mile mark. However, some runners experience it before this mark, whenever a person’s body starts running low on glycogen the wall is approaching. In other words, when the body’s energy tank is running low and close to empty, and carbohydrate gels can help you run through this wall.
By the way, as an Amazon Associate, I earn when buying qualified products through links on my site.
Do Elite Marathon Runners Use Gels?
Yes! Elite ultramarathon runner and world record holder Mike Wardian relates his experience that he takes an energy gel every 4 miles during a marathon, which works out to be 6 gels over the course of a marathon. (you can see his interview, here), other elite marathon runners such as Paula Radcliffe and Desi Linden also use gels.
All marathon runners, average, sound, or elite, must keep hydrated and refuel their glycogen levels during the race. The body stores glycogen, or energy, in muscles and the liver that provide the energy capacity for a 60-90 min workout. Marathon times for elite runners’ range between 2h02min-2h10 for men and 2h15min-2h25min for women.
As seen above, the running time exceeds the body’s natural stored energy capacity timeframe. Therefore, athletes will have to top up their energy levels (carbohydrates) to avoid a drop in energy and power. Some do this top-up by taking gels.
Most gels offer 20-30 grams of carbohydrates, and they usually include no fiber, protein, or fat. The carbohydrates come from simple sugars like cane sugar, honey, brown rice syrup, fructose, and maltodextrin. Some gels also include electrolytes and caffeine.
When it comes to race time, runners often follow this basic rule:
- If the run is between 1-2.5 hours, you should aim to eat up to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour.
- If the run is more than 2.5 hours long, you should aim to eat 60-90 grams of carbohydrates per hour.
- It means that you would need to fuel every 15-20 minutes if possible.
(more details, here)
Different Types Of Gels for Running
There are two types of gels that marathon runners can choose from:
- Hypertonic Gels
- These gels are more concentrated than body fluids and are required to be ingested with water.
- They might cause discomfort to the stomach or even induce vomiting if taken without water.
- Isotonic Gels
- Runners can conveniently ingest these gels without water, and runners squeeze them straight into their mouths while running.
Elite runners tend to have their preference when it comes down to what type of gel they prefer to use. Paula Radcliffe had gels taped to her drinks while competing in the NYCM in 2004 (isotonic).
Desi Linden, winner of the Boston marathon in 2018, indicated that she has at times mixed power gels into her water bottles, as it was easier than grappling with packaging while running the race (hypertonic).
Why Do Elite Runners Use Gels?
When elite runners decide to take running gels to boost their bodies and performance, they study what the gel consists of regarding nutrients. It’s not as simple as just putting any gel in your mouth and hoping for the best.
Elite runners and their coaching staff look for the following when choosing a gel:
This ingredient is a very palatable form of carbohydrates and is absorbed faster than glucose. Maltodextrin is a fast-digesting carbohydrate, often included in sports gels, sports drinks, and snacks.
Maltodextrin does not use much water to digest as some other carbohydrates do and is a fast way to get quick calories without becoming dehydrated. In addition, this carbohydrate has been proven to help maintain anaerobic power during exercise, ideal for running a marathon.
Fructose And Glucose (Sucrose)
The gel should have a low amount of fructose. Fructose gives the gel a pleasant taste; however, your body will struggle to digest too much of it. Ideally, the gel should contain a mixture of glucose and fructose-together your body will be able to absorb it.
On its own, your body will struggle. Sucrose (fructose and glucose) provides a quick but short-lasting energy boost, and you will need a few of these gels during the race.
Caffeine is commonly in gels (20-40 mg). It helps with endurance, boosts your mood, and helps with the fast absorption of the carbohydrates found in the running gel.
Caffeine also improves your mental cognition, especially when you feel a little crazy in the last third of the marathon or just before you hit that wall! Others report that if they use a lot of energy gels that their body is shaking by the end of the marathon–which is a bit of a sign that your neurological system is out of balance. Use caffeine responsibly.
Essential electrolytes found in the body are sodium and potassium. (source)
- Sodium regulates the amount of water in the body. Thus, the transmission of sodium in and out of individual cells plays a critical role in particular body functions.
- Several processes in the body, the brain, muscles, and nervous system require electrical signals for communication.
- Sodium movement is critical in the generation of these electric signals.
- Too much or too little sodium will cause cells to malfunction.
- Maintaining the proper level of potassium is essential for cell function.
- Potassium is in charge of regulating your heartbeat and the functioning of the muscles.
These are crucial electrolytes that need some replacing when you are doing exercise, like running a marathon, as your body sweats out many fluids.
So, make sure that the gel includes some form of one or the other! If your gel does not contain sodium or potassium, then make sure to stock up on a sports energy drink with many electrolytes in them.
Why Do Some Elite Runners Not Use Gels?
Some elite runners do not take in any gels at all. Instead, they rely on other sources when upping their carbohydrates, like sports energy drinks, energy bars, and specific food types containing the required carbohydrates.
Gels do cause an upset stomach for some athletes, and through experimentation, you will quickly find out if the gels accommodate your gastric system. High amounts of fructose and caffeine could upset any stomach.
A general rule when taking gels is to aim for caffeine content of 25mg or less. Should no stomach problems occur, you can systematically up the amount of caffeine in your gel. Some runners will opt for a more natural gel that does not contain as many artificial ingredients.
These gels will typically still include enough carbohydrates. However, be wary that they don’t have fiber and protein as your body does not need these or need to deal with them during a race.
Elite marathon runners use gels as this is the easiest and most convenient way to get the required carbohydrates into their system. They add energy sport’s drinks to the mix to make up for whatever nutrients are not included in the gels. Some take hypertonic gels, while others prefer the isotonic variant.
Some elite athletes don’t require carbohydrate replenishing, but they are the exception and not the norm. “Hitting the wall” could happen to any athlete who does not take in the necessary nutrition during the race, and this loss of energy and power usually derails their race.
There are many gels and energy products on the market, but always try them out during practice to see what the effects are. You should only get an increase of energy from them and not an upset stomach. Just like the elite marathon runners, you have to put the gel through physical tests first before they can become part of your race!