How to use the different types for fuel during your workout
We know that a properly fuelled body is key to succeeding in endurance events. While water may typically be sufficient for activities lasting less than about 90-120minutes depending on exercise intensity, depleted glycogen energy stores start to require topping up when going longer. When it comes to nailing down what exactly comprises the “best fuel,” though, there are many options. Factors such as energy density, weight, convenience and taste are all relevant. One popular option are energy gels which rank highly for convenience.
If you’ve never encountered the stuff before, you’ll probably find yourself asking yourself a few questions. Do I need to take this? If so, how much? How about the texture, will it deter me? What’s the best brand? And will my ability to burn body fat for fuel be impeded if I incorporate this alternative source of energy into my routine?
But before you stress yourself out, let’s get down to the basics.
So, what exactly is an energy gel?
Most simply, this is a calorie-dense, carbohydrate-based form of fuel that comes in a single-serving package. It is often made up of multiple forms of sugar, each performing a different role. The exact ingredients will vary brand to brand, but they products aim to provide endurance athletes with the energy they need to sustain them throughout their activities, as well as replenish any minerals that may have become depleted as a result of their physical output.
Glucose, a primary ingredient, is the basic molecular unit of a carbohydrate. This means when we consume carbs, they are broken down into glucose, an energy source we can use immediately.
Any carbs that cannot be broken down into glucose and used right away are stored in the muscles as glycogen. When more energy is needed, the glycogen is released from the muscles and is converted to glucose. It is this process of drawing on glycogen stores that explains why endurance athletes “carbo-load” before events: they’re storing up as much as they can in their muscles.
When more glucose is needed than what is available in the glycogen stores, or if conversion to glucose is not quick enough, athletes will find themselves in need of a simple form of carbohydrate that can be ingested and used immediately. This typically occurs after 90 minutes of low-intensity exercise; according to a study conducted by Iowa State University, it requires this amount of time to deplete glycogen stores.
Along with the need for a simple carbohydrate, working muscles require a blend of those simple carbohydrates, like maltodextrin, plus fructose. Endurance products are designed to contain these ingredients.
Determining how much your body needs
Of course, the amount of energy and minerals you will expend—and consequently need to restore—varies from person to person based on individual body makeup. There are multiple factors that contribute to the ways in which your body will respond to a particular activity, including age, time of day, whether you’ve slept well the night before, etc. Plus there’s the variable of the physical exertion itself to take into account, with notable characteristics being intensity and duration.
Studies conducted by The American College of Sports Medicine and the National Academy of Sports Medicine have come to the following recommendations. First, 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates is typically required for every hour of intense exercise. Next, when we exceed two hours of activity, we ought to consume 15 grams of protein in addition to this base of carbohydrates. And furthermore, when we push past three hours of endurance activity, the recommendations suggest an increase our carb intake to the range of 60-90 grams per hour.
So, if you’re merely a recreational jogger taking a quick, half hour run, you do not need to worry about lining your pockets with energy gels. However, if you plan on embarking on longer runs—say hitting the trails for upwards of 90 minutes—you may find a carbohydrate boost, which can be provided by a gel, to be helpful.
Remember, only use the recommendations above as a baseline. Play around and tweak your intake until you find the best amount (and form) of carbs to suit your body’s needs for optimal performance.
Whole food “gels”
Speaking of experimenting with the best form of carbs for you, there’s also something to be said for whole food alternatives to pre-packaged gels. For one, these simple, everyday foods are going to be cheaper because you can prepare them yourself. Plus, they’re better for the environment as they aren’t encased in plastic wrapping. And, they’re an all-natural, rich source of carbs, a factor that’s not to be discounted if you’re health conscious.
Bear in mind, since each whole food has its own macronutrient breakdown—meaning its own ratio of fat to carbs to protein to fibre—you’ll need to experiment to see what suits you best, just like you do with the manufactured gels. What works best for your running buddy may not be what works best for you.
So, test out different foods (see below for options) while you’re still in your training phase; never leave it to the day of your competition or race to try something new, that only invites the possibility of the dreaded, mid-race GI distress to rear its ugly face. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, GI distress is essentially stomach and/or abdominal pain, that may present itself in the form of a dull or sharp ache, cramping, or even the sudden urge to use the washroom.
Whole food sources to try
- Mashed sweet potato (½ cup): 123 calories, 33g of carbs
- Raisins (1 box, small): 123 calories, 33g of carbs
- Banana (large): 140 calories, 36g of carbs, 3 g of fibre
- Apple (small, peeled): 77 calories, 21g of carbs, 2g of fibre
- Honey (1 tablespoon): 64 calories, 17g of carbs
- Fruit purée (1 pouch): 60-120 calories, 25g + of carbs
Refined sources for fast-acting carbs
- Pretzels (50g serving): 190 calories, 1.3g of fat, 40g of carbs, 633mg of sodium for electrolytes
- Gummy candies (50 gram serving): 198 calories, 50g of carbs
* ideal for their simple sugars that reach blood and muscles rapidly
DIY Energy Gels
Get creative in the kitchen and experiment by making your own energy gels. This allows you to tailor them exactly to your liking. You can either develop your own formula from scratch, or try out this delightful recipe we discovered in Total Women’s Cycling magazine (November, 2014).
In a food processor or blender toss:
- 3 pitted dates
- 1 tablespoon of honey
- 1 and ½ tablespoons of coconut oil
- ¾ of a pear
- 2 teaspoons of cinnamon
- 1/4 cup of pear juice
Blend until smooth, adding more pear juice if you find the mixture too thick, or more dates if it’s too runny. Transfer into freezer bags or squeeze tubes to keep in fridge until use.
Pros & cons
As previously mentioned, energy gels can be extremely beneficial for athletes, providing a relatively small, portable, conveniently packaged option for fuelling on the go. Most gels also have the added benefit of being non-perishable; so, you don’t have to worry about them going bad. Plus, there is the most important aspect: they deliver our muscles energy in the form of glucose, and they do it quickly. Because these products are void of fat and fibre, the sugar can quickly enter our bloodstream, and thus replenish low energy levels in our muscles.
Like with all good things, though, there comes a downside. The first being the price. Expect to spend at least three times what you would pay for a standard, chewy sweet, which can come as a shock considering their similar list of ingredients. This leads us to the next con: the questionable sugar and protein sources utilized, plus preservatives and thickeners.
Here are some of the most-used ingredient:
- Sugar: sucrose, dextrose, fructose, maltodextrin, glucose, cane juice, honey, brown rice syrup, tapioca syrup, glycerin (sugar alcohol)
- Electrolytes: sodium chloride, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium citrate
- Protein: isoleucine, leucine, valine, histidine, alanine, whey protein isolate hydrosolate
- Preservatives: sodium lactate, ascorbic acid, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, sodium acid sulfate, sodium citrate
- Thickeners: pectin, carnauba wax, confectioners glaze, soy lecithin
Many of these ingredients are synthetic chemicals, known to cause gastrointestinal distress. So, pay attention to what you’re ingesting, and if you find yourself having adverse reactions to numerous gels, you may want to try another method of fuelling yourself.
The High Fat Approach
We’ve all heard the news by now: fat is back. After decades of turning up our noses to butter, egg yolks, red meat, avocados and the like, we’ve finally begun to see the light and make our peace with this macronutrient that is so vital to our health.
As a result of this shift, fat-based energy products have cropped up on the market, competing with sugar-rich energy gels. The arguments being made for this approach? At its core, there’s the anti-sugar movement that states that our over-consumption of the substance has made us —as an entire species and on a global scale—chronically ill. Whether its an excess of weight, adrenal burnout, or some other chronic illness, sugar is being cited as a likely culprit. Thus, it ought to be avoided, and in its place we are now told to consume fat.
The next argument for following a high-fat diet lies is that it encourages fat oxidation, a process whereby our body burns our stored fat for fuel, instead of relying on carbohydrates. This promotes stable blood sugar levels, meaning rather than a quick, intense burst of energy—which ultimately ends up in a crash—our bodies receive a steady release of energy over time. This is key for focused concentration and stamina in endurance training.
Third, when we are fuelled with fat, we are satiated on a deep, cellular level. So, cravings that would normally affect a sugar-burner need not apply to a fat burner. Because of this, staying on track when it comes to nutrition for optimal athletic performance becomes painless.
Finally, there’s the considerable upside that is the following: fat-based energy gels do not contain the less-than-desirable ingredients that are so commonly found in carb-based energy gels. Instead, they contain amino acids, medium chain triglycerides, and slow releasing starch.
Curious about the products out there that can serve as fat-based energy gels? Check out these goodies we’ve rounded up here:
- Justin’s Nut Butter: containing an ideal quantity of calories per pack (200kcal), plus a good combination of fats and simple sugars for optimal energy
- Vitalyte Chia Gels: the absorbent property of chia seeds helps prevent sugar spikes
- GU Peanut Butter: less sweet than other GU options, featuring more amino acids, sodium, potassium, and fatty acids
- V Fuel: contains no additives, fructose, or preservatives, making it a great option for those with fructose absorption problems
- Pocket Fuel Naturals: a blend of nuts, seeds, and fruit that has been whipped into a vitamin- and mineral-rich butter
- Peanut Butter Hammer Gel: similar to GU peanut butter, but without dextrose, sucrose, and glucose
- Artisana Coconut or Almond Butter: low sugar, high fat, and preservative-free
The method in which you choose to fuel yourself for your endurance activity of choice will depend entirely on you and your unique situation. It may even vary for you, day by day, and certainly activity to activity. Experiment with traditional carb-based energy gels. See how they work for you. Then try out some fat-based sources. The best thing you can do for your performance is refrain from being dogmatic about your approach. Staying open-minded and really listening to what your body is telling you is the key to your individual biological make up.
PS. If you’re fascinated by the high-fat trend, make sure to read all about it in this depth article here.