When you sign up to your first marathon, there's a million and one things to think about. There's when you're going to fit in your long runs, how to get rid of serious crippling muscle pain, what to use to supplement your performance and how to satisfy your never-ending hunger... but another super important and often overlooked part of your long run training prep is how to fuel MID run.
Energy gels are the most common choice for endurance athletes, but they can be quite controversial in the running world. Some people swear by them, others are disgusted by the very thought. So, we’re here to explain what they are and how and when they could benefit you. We've even got some natural alternatives in case you decide they’re not for you…
What Are Energy Gels?
Simply put, they're carbohydrates in liquid form, used most commonly by endurance athletes to fuel their training and races.
They consist of simple sugars, such as sucrose, fructose and glucose, and maltodextrin; which is a carbohydrate made from corn starch.
Although the exact content will vary between brands, most energy gels contain between 20 and 30g of carbohydrate, and likely added electrolytes and caffeine too.
When & Why Would You Use One?
If you’re only a casual runner focusing on short distances, running out of fuel halfway isn't too much of a worry. However, when you start clocking up more and more miles, you’ll start to deplete your energy stores - which tend to run out after about 90 minutes!
If you don't top up your glycogen stores with enough carbohydrates, poor performance, recovery, and extreme fatigue can occur - aka you'll hit the wall! Which is not ideal when you're only halfway through a marathon...
Although many health-conscious individuals tend to avoid simple sugars in day to day life, in this situation, glucose or fructose is exactly what you need. It's broken down and absorbed quickly by the body, meaning you'll feel their effects on your energy levels, fast.
So Why The Hate?
As with all diet decisions, it's down to personal preference! If you prefer to avoid refined, simple sugars and like to stick to a more ‘whole-foods’ diet, then they probably aren't for you.
Also, some people do find that running gels can upset their stomachs, which is likely because of the huge volume of fructose and caffeine they contain. If the content of caffeine is higher, it's more likely to cause those symptoms of cramping, sickness and diarrhoea that you'll want to avoid!
But if you do want an easy and convenient way to refuel mid-run, we recommend giving them a go! Our best tip would be to do this on a non-important run (an important training run or race day itself is not the day to start messing around!) and just see how you feel. Try to stick with 25mg of caffeine or less and work up from there if needed.
What Are Some Alternatives?
Other sources of simple sugars will also do the trick - but be careful not to choose something that takes too much chewing! Easy to eat candies are the most common choices. A small handful of jelly beams will give you roughly the same level of carbohydrates as a gel.
If you'd rather find a less processed source of energy, some runners suggest dried fruits or dates, but these can be hard to swallow mid-run! Squeezable pouches of baby food are one of our favourite alternatives. It sounds weird, but the pure fruit pouches are easy to carry, resealable, and don't contain any added caffeine or sweeteners. So it's a great all-natural, vegan-friendly option that might be easier on your stomach!