Kipchoge taking Energy gels for running

Energy Gels for Running – Easy Explanation and Comparison

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In less than 6 weeks, I am planning to be at the starting line of the Chicago Marathon and in 10 weeks, the New York Marathon. This month will be peak mileage which means that fuelling will play a key role to ensure spot-on training sessions and fast recovery for the next workout.

In the past, I have tried multiple energy gels but they were all recommendations from my running community without a first hand research. Now that I am about to buy gels in bulk for this racing season (and I’ve got more conscious about what I consume), I thought of putting together a quick 101 to energy gels (think of them as liquid carbohydrates) and a comparison of some of the major global and Indian gels. If you already know what gels are used for, you can skip the next section and directly move to either the major ingredients of gel or the comparison between different brands.

What Are Running Gels Used For?

Most gels are designed/ created with the same goal – to deliver a big hit of fast-acting carbs in a conveniently portable package that you can slurp down on the move, and that doesn’t impact your tummy.

That’s a heavy statement – let’s get into some details.

Energy gels provide you a boost throughout a long, strenuous run by replenishing your depleted carbohydrate resources. Your body uses both fat and carbohydrates as fuel when you run to energise your muscles. Fat is inefficient when you’re running longer distances, such as during a marathon (or any 2+ hour run), because it takes longer to break down into usable energy.

Instead, your body looks for carbohydrates. As a thumb rule, the faster you run, the more of your fuel comes from carbohydrate intake. Your body can only store a limited amount of carbohydrates in the muscles. This type of carbohydrate is known as glycogen.

If you’re running 6-8K, running out of energy halfway shouldn’t be much of a concern. Glycogen stores begin to deplete anytime after 60 minutes depending on the effort, how rested you are and various other factors – at half marathon pace it can be around 60-90 minutes and at marathon pace around 90-120 minutes. This means the average runner will be running low on glycogen stores at around the halfway point during their marathon.

After consuming an energy gel, the blood absorbs the simple sugars giving you a spike in energy. Through the blood, it’s taken up by your active muscles and organs. This provides your body with a short-lived boost of energy. For my marathons, I take a gel every 35-40 minutes. It’s super important to ensure that you take one before the glycogen levels start fall impacting your performance/ race. It’s worth noting that taking two gels at a time doesn’t mean you’ll have 80-90 minutes of running, instead you’re likely to crash as your body attempts to process the sugar.

What Are The Ingredients in Energy Gels?

I analysed ~20 gel types/ flavours from 7 different brands. Most gels are meant to generate 100 Kcal of energy from from serving size of 35-41g (quantity of gel in the packet).

Here are the ingredients

  1. Carbohydrates – The most important ingredient and the one behind the “energy” of the energy gel – each pack contains around 25g of cabs in the form of –
    • Fast carbs – High Glycemic Index (GI) – faster absorption into the bloodstream and immediate impact. Glucose (also known as Dextrose) has a GI Index of 100. Maltodextrin also has high GI. Unless specifically mentioned, most gels only have this kind of carb.
    • Slow carbs – Low GI – slower absorption – Fructose with an index of 23 must be digested, absorbed and processed by the liver before being used by the muscles. A lot of energy gels use mix of slow and fast carbs to keep the energy supply in control. Maurten, possibly the world’s most known energy gel uses Fructose to Glucose ratio of 0.8:1.
  2. Electrolytes – Most gels today contain minerals to keep the electrolyte levels stable in the body. This helps the muscles to function efficiently and avoid injuries. When you sweat, you lose electrolytes through the pores. To prevent cramping, you need to replenish them. The main minerals are – Magnesium (Mg), Sodium (Na), Potassium (K) or Calcium (Ca). Each gel contains a unique composition of these elements. You can read here about how electrolytes work.
  3. Caffeine – According to some studies, main benefit is that caffeine aids carbohydrate absorption. This means more available energy for the runner to use, and less carbohydrate sloshing around in the gut and causing GI issues. Most coffee based gels have 0-50mg of caffeine. Here’s some more information on the impact of caffeine to endurance athletes.
  4. Amino Acids – These are the building blocks of proteins and is added meant to help delay fatigue onset, maintain performance and positive brain function. Some gels will just mention “Amino Acids” in the ingredients while some will specify one or more from Taurine, Valine, Leucine, L-Citruline etc.
  5. Anti Oxidants – fruit-flavoured, containing antioxidant-rich fruits like berries. These help in neutralising free radicals, harmful compounds that are produced when our muscle cells consume the oxygen present in the blood.
  6. Preservatives – Most contain Pottasium Sorbate, Sodium Benzoate. Maurten claims to be clean of any preservatives.

Are Running Gels Healthy? Are There Any Downsides?

Diet is quite personal, and many athletes prefer to keep to a more “wholefoods-based” diet by avoiding refined sugars.

For some with more sensitive stomachs, the carbohydrates present in energy gels can be problematic. Bloating, cramps, nausea, and general GI pain are very typical. The same goes for needing to use the restroom mid-race. Learn more about gel-induced gut rot and how to prevent it.

Running gels are particularly difficult to digest since much of the blood flow is centred around the muscles that are being used for running.

The same holds true for caffeinated gels – your tummy might not be happy with processing a dose of caffeine while the blood flow not optimal for digestion.

Which Are The Best Energy Gels For Running?

As with any music festival, I have saved the best for the last. Here’s the comparison of the major gels in India and some foreign ones. Instead of sharing my bias/ choice on which one is the “best”, I am sharing the constituents of each gel for you to decide for yourself. The previous section explains the purpose of each ingredient.

Unless specified, all gels provide 100 KCal of energy and are mostly coming from High GI (quick release carbs). The following table showcases the differences.

GelCarbs
(g)
Electrolytes
(mg)
Caffeine
(mg)
Amino Acids
(mg)
Notes
Unived Gel 100
(Salted Lime/ Salted Caramel)
254440200
Unived Gel 100
Cocoa Choco (CC)/
Espresso Cappuccino (EC)
25365CC – 50
EC – 100
200
Unived Gel 100
(All other flavours)
253650200
Unived Elite 180
(Vanilla Sea Salt)
458710400180 Kcal energy
2:1 simple to complex carbs
Unived Elite 180
Caramel Latte (CL)/
Cacao Sea Salt (CSS)/
Double Espresso (DE)
45Not availableCL – 35
CSS – 50
DE – 100
400180 Kcal energy
2:1 simple to complex carbs
Leap (all flavours)2530023418
Maurten255600Hydrogel
Fructose to Glucose 0.8:1
No Preservatives
Gu
Chocolate Orange (CO)/
Salted Caramel (SC)/
Strawberry Banana (SB)
CO – 21
SC – 22
SB – 23
CO – 140
SC – 185
SB – 105
CO – 20
SC – 20
SB – 0
420
Trekk
Espresso Energy (EE)/
Salted Caramel (SC)
2890EE – 40
SC – 0
500Contains Zinc,
Vit B1, B6, B12, E
Fast & Up
Strawberry Banana (SB)/
Lime & Lemon (LL)
SB – 19
LL – 21
0SB – 0
LL – 30
SiS
Orange (OR)/
Tropical (TR)/
Electrolyte Raspberry (ER)
22OR – 10
TR – 10
ER – 129
Isotonic Gel (no water needed)
60g package for same amount
of carbs
87 Kcal instead of 100Kcal
Comparison of different energy gels

While Maurten might seem to be technically similar to the other gels (and actually weaker on the electrolyte and amino acid front), there are three factors that make it the choice of so many elite athletes.

  1. Very easy on the stomach and no preservatives
  2. No “taste fatigue” due to milder sweetness and much easier to taste buds.
  3. A 0.8:1 ratio of fructose to glucose allows an athlete to take up to 100 g of carbohydrates per hour. Elites, who need to replenish calories faster, train their GI system/ gut to process Fructose.
Eliud Kipchoge x Maurten Gel

How Do I Know Which Running Gel Is The Best For Me?

The only and only way is to try during your training cycle.

Every gel will have a different type of reaction on your body and how your gastrointestinal system absorbs it to generate energy. It’s quite possible that a gel that works for everyone in your running group is not suitable for you. Try others. This article has a list but there are many more available. You might be a coffee lover but it’s quite possible that your stomach doesn’t like coffee while you’re doing hard efforts runs.

Flavour is also something that is a big deciding factor for most runners. “Taste fatigue” is a thing. You need to be 100% sure that the you will be able to consume 6-7 of those gels within a span of 3-4 hours (if you’re training for a marathon) and not feel pukish while you’re aiming for that big PR!

Please let me know through the comments which is the gel of your choice and why? Also do share your experiences related to gels from your running journey!

I request you to flag any incorrect information on this post. The source of most of the data in the table above are the ingredients list on the gel pack or the official website of the company.

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Dhruv varma
Dhruv varma
5 months ago

Great article! Very well researched and explained. It’s also interesting to see that pretty much all of these gels use the same type of car, maltodextrin, which is essentially a glucose chain. The challenge with that is that the human body can only process about 60g/hr of Glucose (limited by the transporter that transports it from the gut to the blood stream). And while 60g/hr might be more than sufficient for the recreational runner, it may not cut it for the elites. Which is why you see a lot of the pros using gels and drinks with a Glucose-Fructose mix.… Read more »