Gels - you are either a firm believer in them or you absolutely hate them. The latter is usually due to a nasty side effect such as a gastro problem. But the truth is, energy gels do have their place.
In order to establish exactly what to look for in an energy gel, when to take them and how to avoid the dreaded tummy upset, we enlisted the help of Emma Barraclough, Senior Sports Nutritionist for Science in Sport (SiS).
Gels are only for the pros, aren’t they?
Whole food sources such as energy bars and bananas are easy to take with you on the bike, but they’re not always the most suitable things to be eating. When you eat solid food, more blood flow gets diverted to your gut to help with digestion. This is fine when you are riding steadily, but when you are riding at a higher intensity this compromises the amount of blood flow that your working muscles receive. This makes you unable to either keep up the work rate or you risk having the food sit heavily in your stomach waiting to be digested.
Gels, especially isotonic ones, empty quickly from your stomach and provide a fast source of energy. Most are pure carbohydrate, and unlike solid foods such as flapjacks and bananas, do not contain anything to slow the energy release down such as fat, protein or fibre.
Aren’t all energy gels the same?
Not all energy gels are the same. They can vary hugely in their taste, energy content, other ingredients (such as electrolytes and caffeine) and thickness. All of these different characteristics mean that they behave very differently in the body and will be absorbed at different rates.
The source of carbohydrate is really important. For a healthy balanced diet and sustained energy levels throughout a working day, we usually talk a lot about using low GI carbohydrates. These typically come from wholegrain food sources, and give a steady release into the bloodstream over a number of hours.
However, during exercise, the rapid demand for energy means that high GI carbohydrates are preferred. These are present much faster in the bloodstream and help you to keep up with the demands of your activity.
Maltodextrin is a commonly used ingredient in many gels. It is a glucose polymer, which means that it is made up of chains of glucose molecules, and has a high GI, meaning that the energy is available quickly.
Not all maltodextrin is the same however, the size of molecules can vary hugely. Ideally, you need your gel to be made of a maltodextrin that empties quickly from your stomach and doesn’t create stomach issues.
What about Fructose?
Fructose is a common inclusion in many 2:1 energy gels. This is because it is absorbed via a different pathway to glucose, potentially increasing your carbohydrate intake from 60g maximum per hour to 90g per hour.
The issue is what happens to the fructose once it is in your body, and how it can be turned into a fuel source that your muscles are able to use. This process takes some time, potentially as long as 90 minutes from when you ingest it to when it is able to enter your muscles and be converted into energy. Therefore it is not ideal to be reliant on fructose as a source of fast energy.
Don’t gels upset your stomach?
Fructose and glucose are examples of simple sugars, which increase the concentration of a gel or drink, so you will need more water with it for it to be absorbed optimally.
This can create an increased risk of causing GI distress, mainly for two potential reasons. Firstly if you don’t take enough water with your gel, and it, therefore, sits heavily in your stomach, as the emptying process will be delayed. Secondly, simple sugars feed the bacteria in the gut, this can result in more gas being produced which can cause bloating and cramps.
Always read the label!
The key things to look for on the nutrition panel is the source of carbohydrate and check the “of which sugars" line. You should look for as little sugar as possible. The more sugar is listed there, the higher the tonicity will be, the more water you will need to take with it and the greater the risk will be of the gel causing you gastric distress.
Check the ingredients list, and look for maltodextrin as one of the first listed. In an isotonic gel, water will be first on the list. Some gels may have a higher carbohydrate content per serving, but they will not be isotonic.
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