Energy Gels for Running: How They Work and When You Should Take Them

Posted by Beth Hartman

The suns high overhead, your feeling like your hitting a wall, Cramping. Pure exhaustion, your not sure you can go on, what do you do?.

Running a marathon brings many of those experiences to each and every one of us, but we are told that if we use energy gels, you may be able to put these instances at bey, and you will feel better in those final few miles of a race.  There is no doubt that getting a burst of energy by helping to replenish the carbohydrate stores that are depleted when running, will help to give you that injection of energy, but at what cost?

Let's look into just exactly how energy gels and other carbohydrate supplements work, which will help you understand exactly when and how often you should be taking them to help you get to the finish line.

Why is it Important to take in Energy food stuff,  During a Race?
It wasn’t long ago that runners relied solely on water, sports drinks, and maybe some flat cola as their primary carbohydrate supplement during marathons and half marathons.
Dick Beardsley spoke about how he would grab a cup from a spectator in a marathon, look to see if it “looked” clean, and if so, drink it…and this is someone who almost won the Boston Marathon and was the feature of Duel in the Sun, one of the greatest Boston marathon finishes of all time.

Our understanding of sports nutrition (specifically how glycogen is used during a marathon) has improved to the point that we now have a large number of products that are available to choose from, each designed to speed glycogen to our working muscles.
The problem these days is not in finding a glycogen delivery product, but rather in finding the best energy (gel) for you and then developing a strategic nutrition strategy to make sure you take in enough energy on race day.  One product that we like is the GU Original Sports Nutrition Energy Gel  It will provide a boost of energy for any active sport, not just running but it's great for that as well.

Your body needs a lot of energy to run a marathon.  Your body uses two primary sources of fuel to feed the muscles when you’re running – fat and carbohydrates.

Fat is a largely abundant resource but is broken down into usable energy slowly, making it an ineffective fuel source when running anything faster than about 60-70% of your VO2max (roughly equivalent to your aerobic threshold or marathon pace).
Your body relies on carbohydrates as its primary fuel source when racing.  A great way to keep track of your VO2 index is using the Garmin Forerunner 920XT Multisport GPS Watch Besides measuring your VO2 index it also makes you aware of the estimated time you will need for recovery after your race!

Here’s the breakdown on what happens to your muscle glycogen during exertion.
The faster you run, the greater the percentage of fuel will come from carbohydrates. The problem with carbohydrates is that we can only store a limited amount in our muscles. Typically, we can store about 90 minutes of muscle glycogen when running at half marathon pace and about 2 hours when running at marathon pace.

What do energy gels do?
They are designed to replenish carbohydrate stores that are depleted when running.
Sounds like energy gels are a savior, right?
Unfortunately, energy gels don’t provide a simple one-to-one replacement. The glycogen we ingest from gels doesn’t always make its way to the working muscles, when we would like. That's why, while energy gels do definitely help you get that boost of glycogen, it's not always enough
Because carbohydrates are stored in both the muscles and the liver and your performance on race day relies on using the glycogen stored in the muscle.
For glycogen to make its way to the muscles, it must first be digested, make it’s way through the intestinal wall, and then, be absorbed by the muscles.
This process takes time and isn’t very efficient.
However, gels will often “wake you up” in a very noticeable way because our brain only runs on the glucose stored in the liver.
As the muscles start to absorb more blood glucose, the brain gets less glucose and starts to get hazy (you’ve probably noticed this feeling on your long runs or if you ran without eating enough).
Often, a gel will wake you up and help the mind feel energized, but it doesn’t necessarily prevent that need in your leg muscles.

Should you take an energy gel for running a half marathon or 10k?

Studies have looked into the research about half marathon and under, and some interesting findings showed even just drinking a sports drink, is enough to give you a boost in a shorter race.

A 5k is definitely too short to need carbs, either before or during your race.
When it comes to a 10k, it will depend on how quick you are, and how fast your body can react to the carbs.  If you are able to run the 10k under 40 minutes, you do not need to take on any carbs, but if you run between 45-60 minutes, you should try sipping on a sports drink if you feel like you need to.

The benefits of taking on fuel do not make too much of a difference until you are running for 60-75 minutes, though, so if you are running under that, there is not really a big need for it, unless you want to take something to wake you up!

When Should You Take Energy Gels for Running?
There is NO, simple answer to this, but: Just like almost every facet of running, the timing of when you should take your gels is individual.
Each runner absorbs and processes carbohydrates at a different rate – some can feel the effect within three minutes while others might take up to 15 minutes.
This variation in absorption rate has to do with how efficient your stomach is at digesting carbohydrates and the type of carbohydrates you’re consuming 

When running hard, your body often diverts blood away from the digestive track to help give your legs more blood (and therefore oxygen).
Sometimes, your body shuts the stomach down completely while other times it just slows down.
This is why it isn’t uncommon to see runners throw up fluids or gels right after ingesting them late into the race.

Therefore, you want to begin taking gels relatively early into the race.
By taking the gels early, your body shouldn’t be under great duress and you have a better chance of processing the sugars faster and without stomach issues.

When should I start taking gels?
Somewhere between 45-60 minutes, depending on how well you generally react to gels in training. 

Should I take a gel before the race?
Some runners like to take a gel right before the starting gun goes off.
While there is no problem with this, we think it's better to consume a more substantial breakfast, with less simple sugars.  Most large marathons usually have a group supper the night before, allowing everyone to load up on carbs, usually a pasta or some other starch that will process into sugar later in your body.

What’s the bottom line Then, What Should I Eat?

We suggest for breakfast would be a bagel with peanut butter, an energy bar, or oatmeal. 

How Often Should You Take Energy Gels for Running?
As we’ve already discussed, the speed at which you’re able to digest and process energy gels plays an important role in how often you want to take them.
Because the digestion process will be slowed or halted the further you get into the race,you need to be careful not to overload your stomach.
Therefore, we suggest waiting about 45-60 minutes between gels before taking another one.
Most runners should be closer to the 60-minute mark, especially if they have sensitive stomachs.
The second reason to wait 45-60 minutes between taking gels is that you don’t want to let too much simple sugar into your blood stream at once. Remember, the simple sugars from the energy gels will first be absorbed into your bloodstream as glucose.
The sugar will stay in the blood stream until absorbed by the working muscles or other organs. If you continue to pump sugar into the blood stream, you’ll suffer the same fate as your children if left alone on Halloween – sick from a sugar high!

The other aspect to keep in mind is that your digestive track is trainable like most every other part of your body.
So if you eat gels in training, particularly if you do it at set intervals that correlate to when you will take them during a race, your body will learn to keep the digestive track running and you will digest the gel more readily.
This is why it’s critical you practice your exact fueling strategy as often as possible  whle your training.

Energy Gels serve the purpose of providing that extra burst of energy when you need it, but know your limits.  Remember, its better to start off the race day right with a good balanced breakfast of carbs and protein. Don't substitute quick fixes for tried and true nutrition methods. Take them as a help, but not to rely on.  Run Smart!


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