The Advantages and Drawbacks of Using Sports Gels for Training
Sports energy gels have become a popular form of energy source for endurance athletes over the past couple of decades. Gels provide a potent source of glucose that can be easily consumed while running. The thick, viscous consistency allows the nutrients to pass through the stomach and be digested quickly. Runners use gels as a way to restore glycogen stores and prevent hitting “the wall” during competitions. Here is an overview of how sports gels work and who may benefit from using them.
Sports gels contain between 20-40 grams of carbohydrates per packet, typically in the form of glucose polymers. Some gels use fructose as well. The high carb concentration provides a quick source of fuel to taxed muscles. Most gels have a consistency like syrup. This allows the nutrients to pass through the stomach faster than food. A serving of gel fuels like a sports drink, but in a more compact form.
In addition to carbs, most gels also contain key electrolytes like sodium and potassium. These minerals are depleted in sweat during intense exercise. Restoring electrolytes helps regulate fluid levels in the body and prevent painful muscle cramps. The salt also helps with absorption of the sugars. Electrolyte content varies between products, so athletes should compare nutrition labels. Caffeine is also commonly added to gels for an extra jolt of energy.
When to Use Sports Gels
Endurance athletes mainly utilize gels during prolonged training or events spanning 60 minutes or more. Common uses include:
- Marathon or half marathon races
- Century or half century bike rides
- Triathlon competitions
- Soccer, hockey, lacrosse games
- Hiking or backpacking excursions
Gels provide quick fuel for the carb burning phase of activity. Most athletes consume one gel serving every 30-45 minutes of sustained strenuous exercise. Proper timing of gel intake helps sustain blood sugar levels. Excess may cause GI distress. Careful use avoids energy crashes.
Advantages of Gels
Sports gels offer several advantages over other forms of fuel like energy bars, chews and sports hydration gel caffeine drinks. Advantages include:
- Portability – Gel pouches are compact and easy to carry while running. Minimal packaging also produces less waste.
- Rapid absorption – The viscous liquid consistency gets digested quickly relative to bars. Provides a fast energy boost.
- Precise dosing – With each pouch containing one serving, gels offer precise to manage consumption while exercising. Difficult to over-consume.
- Variety – Gels come in a wide array of flavors like fruit, chocolate, vanilla and more. Athletes can choose pleasing tastes.
- Caffeine options – Many gels contain caffeine for an extra boost. Provides a physical and mental edge.
While generally safe and effective when used correctly, sports gels do come with some potential drawbacks including:
- Expensive – Gels cost significantly more than sports drinks per serving. The costs can add up over many uses.
- GI distress – Consuming too many gels can cause stomach upset due to the large carbohydrate load. Careful dosing is key.
- Sugar content – The carb concentration leads to a high glycemic index. Diabetics need to monitor blood sugar when using gels.
- Dental health – The sugary consistency can harm tooth enamel over time. Proper oral cleaning is recommended after use.
- Limited calories – Gels only provide carbs. Athletes also need nutrients and fat for balanced sports nutrition.
- Not thirst quenching – Gels hydrate via sugars and electrolytes but do not quench thirst like water or sports drinks.
While not necessarily recommended for everyday use, sports gels can provide a helpful source of mid-activity fuel for endurance athletes. Proper utilization can help sustain energy levels and stamina during prolonged training and events. Athletes should test different brands and flavors during training to find which gels work best for their needs.