Take a trip to your local running store and you’ll face a fine collection of running-related nutritional products. You’ll discover sweets, bars, drinks, protein products, and energy gels. Energy gels seem to be the most popular nutritional product for long distance runners, and for good reason.
In this article, we look at some of the best energy gels on the market to help you on your long runs and during important races. But first…
When should you use energy gels?
When running a 5K or a 10K, you virtually never see energy gels because they’re not necessary for shorter distances.
However, if you’ve ever run a long-distance event like a half or full marathon, you’ll have seen runners pulling out a small pouch from their pocket, opening them, sucking on them for a few seconds, before carrying on as normal.
Energy gels are used by long-distance runners to fuel them on long runs. Running for longer than an hour requires a lot of energy, and that’s where energy gels come in handy.
How does our body get energy for long distance runs?
We have two main sources of energy, one is from burning fat and the other is from burning carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are stored in the muscles as glycogen, and its supply is limited.
Fuelling up on carbohydrates by carbo-loading is common practice for long-distance runners, but this supply won’t last forever during a race.
We have a decent supply of glycogen for shorter races, like 5K-10K, but we begin to run out for longer runs like half-marathons and marathons.
Whilst you won’t be able to fully restore the glycogen which has been lost, energy gels help to replenish the lost glycogen, so you can maintain performance and finish the race.
How often should you take an energy gel?
As a rule of thumb, take a gel in 45-60-minute intervals when running. Even if you don’t feel like taking one, it’s a good idea to stick to regular intervals.
You don’t want to wait until you feel like you need some energy before consuming a gel, because they take some time to kick in after you take one. This could leave you tired and demotivated to finish the race.
The importance of taking a gel at regular intervals during long-run training and races
I experienced an energy gel fail on my first half-marathon. I waited until I felt completely knackered to take the gel, rather than taking it after 45 minutes of running.
As a result, I had to wait an extra 10 minutes from the point of ingestion before it took effect. I felt out of the game and desperately needed a kick to get me going again. It was a difficult ten minutes, which could have been avoided had I taken the gel at regular intervals.
Use a GPS running watch if you must, just make sure you keep an eye on the time and take a gel regularly.
Top energy gel training tip: Practice using gels before a race
Don’t wait until race day to start using energy gels for the first time. Practice using gels during training, particularly on long runs. There are tonnes of different flavours of energy gels out there, with some designed for different purposes.
Don’t get to race day, start sucking on a coffee flavoured gel, only to spit it out in an embarrassing scene when you find the flavour disgusting.
This sounds far-fetched, but I’ve seen a fellow runner do this on a half-marathon. We laughed about it, but I could tell she was slightly embarrassed. Awkward. Don’t let that be you.
Experiment with different energy gels on your weekly long run. Try different brands, flavours and different types. Find a gel that works for you, make sure it’s easy on your stomach, and it’s a gel you enjoy.
What types of energy gels are out there?
- Isotonic gels– These are energy gels which have been mixed with a water and electrolyte balance, giving you the perfect gel solution. You don’t need to take extra water, and they’re very easy to digest with little effort.
Though they help you stay hydrated and energised, they won’t have as much carbohydrate as some other pure energy gels.Therefore, some runners carry both an isotonic gel and purer gel for a long-run or race, to mix cover all bases.Don’t rely on isotonic energy gels for your water intake though, that’s a recipe for dehydration. Take full advantage of drinks stations and friendly onlookers offering water and sports drinks.
- Glucose/ Fructose gels– These are gels which combine glucose and fructose in a 2:1 ratio. Apparently, this leads to a better uptake of carbohydrate than just relying on glucose alone.Because glucose has a high GI index and fructose has a lower one, they raise blood sugar levels more gradually and allow you to maintain energy securely.These are particularly good for runners who still have long distances to go, and don’t want a quick energy spike only for their energy levels to drop immediately afterwards.
- Caffeine gels– My personal favourite (I’m a coffee guy), caffeine energy gels include a decent serving of this legal stimulant. Studies have shown, across a variety of sports, that caffeine can boost performance and keep you going for longer.A powerful string to your bow during a long-distance race. Think of when you need to focus for a long period of time on some work, what’s the first thing you do? Lots of people grab a coffee because the effects of the coffee stimulate their mind and allow them to focus.One downside of using caffeine-infused gels during a race is their diuretic effect. Diuretics make you need to go to the toilet, which can be a massive pain during a race. Especially if you’re going for a personal best.
Therefore, I’d recommend you take a caffeine-infused gel during the later stages of a race.
Without further ado, here are some great energy gels for runners
1. GU Energy Gels
Known for their wide variety of flavours, GU energy gels are highly popular amongst the running community. With a huge flavour selection, roughly 100 calories of energy per packet, 20-23 grams of carbohydrates (depending on flavour), amino acids, caffeine and sodium, GU gels are a fantastic product for runners.
There’s a lot of GU flavours, so I’d recommend you get a few and have a little tasting session. Or, if you’re feeling brave, bring a few different flavours on a run with you and try them on the move.
2. Power Bar Simple Fruit Energy Food
These are great energy gels, filled with simple fruit ingredients and a powerful taste.
These gels are ideal for fruit lovers, and those with a sweet tooth, and come in a variety of flavours including apple, orange and mixed berries. Each packet provides approximately 100 calories and 25 grams of carbohydrates. Give them a try.
3. Huma Chia Energy Plus
This Chia-based gel features tonnes of electrolytes, 100 calories per packet, and roughly 23 grams of carbohydrates. Chia is a natural seed f Salvia hispanica, a flowering plant in the mint family native to central America.
There are lots of health benefits associated with this all-natural ingredient, which is why it’s in a few energy gels, such as this one.
This gel features complete proteins with all 9 essential amino acids, extra sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium. Coming in a variety of flavours like chocolate, blackberry and strawberry, there is a flavour for every runner’s tastes.
4. Science in Sports Isotonic Energy Gel
A problem of fuelling with gels properly is mixing them with water to dilute higher concentrations of sugar, which can lead to GI troubles (raised immediate blood sugar, followed by a crash).
If you’re in the first quarter of a marathon and you take a gel with high sugar content without electrolyte-water mix to counter it, there’s a high chance you’ll have an energy spike and then get tired later. Not ideal.
However, Science in Sport Isotonic gels combats this problem by mixing sugar with water in a carefully formulated solution. They go down easily, come in a variety of flavours, have 22 grams of carbohydrates and are only around 90 calories. What’s not to like about these fantastic gels?
5. Gu Roctane Gel
For those runners who want to go the extra mile, and run extra far, the Gu Roctane gels are the solution. The Roctane selection features more electrolytes and additional amino acids (as well as the essential ones), which help runners with mental and physical fatigue, helpful in the later stages of a race.
These gels also feature taurine, which is found in energy drinks (like Red Bull), meaning they taste sweet and help you maintain peak performance for longer. The presence of these additional ingredients can help reduce muscle damage, boost performance
6. High 5 Energy Gel
Personally, I’m a big fan of high 5 energy gels. High 5 energy was a sponsor for a half-marathon I completed before, and they kept us supplied with tasty gels and energy infused treats throughout the race.
These energy gels were tasty, went down a treat, and I can honestly say they helped me maintain decent performance on one of the hottest days of the year (32-degree heat, in the UK).
They contain 23 grams of carbohydrates, are smooth and light, easy to swallow, made from real fruit juice, and are suitable for vegans. Give High 5 energy gels a go.
7. Honey Stinger Organic Energy Gel
These organic, gluten-free products are made with honey and just 6 other pronounceable ingredients. Rare for most edible products we buy these days! If you don’t enjoy artificial tastes, the Honey Stinger Energy Gel selection could be for you.
They have real, organic honey for an enjoyable energy bump to fuel your running adventure. Why not give them a try?
8. Clif Shot Energy Gel
This popular energy gel contains a decent dose of caffeine (100mg), but not so much to send your heart racing.
Handy for lightweight runners who don’t need as much caffeine, or for anyone looking for a less intense caffeine hit, Clif shot pouches offer 100 calories and 24 grams of carbohydrates.
They’re a fast-acting energy source of carbs to reach the bloodstream in 5 minutes with essential electrolytes, sodium and potassium.
Clif Shot energy gels are small, hand-sized, and come with a litter leash which keeps the small torn off tops from littering trails and roads. Great for the environmentally conscious. Give one a go.
9. Science in Sports Double Espresso
For a full-on, powerful and intense caffeine experience, look no further. Whilst the average caffeinated energy gel will contain 40-50 mg of caffeine (the same amount in half a cup of coffee). The Science in Sport Double Espresso has triple that amount, making them a caffeinated potion of running fuel.
Being coffee crazy, I love these gels for their strong coffee flavour and a powerful hit of fuel. Each pouch contains approximately 90 calories with 22 grams of carbohydrates.
Remember, don’t overload your body with tonnes of caffeine in the hope you’ll be running like Mo Farah or Steve Prefontaine. Whilst it’s good practice to experiment with energy gels, I’d particularly recommend you experiment with this gel before a race.
Make sure you understand what your ideal dose is and be sure you don’t overdo it. We don’t want you to get the jitters or GI distress, the feeling you get after one too many cups of coffee. Think of Fry in Futurama, when he drinks 100 cups of coffee in one day.
10. Gatorade Endurance Energy Gel
These gels are noticeably thin and easier to go down than some other fructose-based energy gels.
They contain approximately 80 calories per pack, 37 grams of carbohydrates, and come in a variety of flavours from mango to vanilla. If Gatorade is your thing, go for this option.
Note on allergies
Some runners suffer from allergies. Common allergies include milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, fish, nuts and shellfish. Though most energy gels don’t contain these ingredients, it’s always important to check the ingredients panel on the back of an energy gel.
It might seem like a lot of hassle, but if you’re allergic to something please take the extra effort. Though it wasn’t an energy gel, my friend once forgot to read the ingredients on a menu for a chicken curry and he suffered an allergic reaction. Luckily, he had his epi pen to hand and he was okay afterwards. Don’t let that happen to you.
Take a moment to check the ingredients on energy gels. Despite the name of this blog, safety first, runners second.
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