Surely, many of you have seen these products for athletes called energy gels, and some have even tried them already. Nevertheless, many do not know very well what they are for, nor what they are made of and, above all, when to take them.
Well, this post will answer all your questions in a jiffy.
What are energy gels and what is their function?
At a technical level, we can say that gels are originally a simple mixture of water and carbohydrates, which form, as their name suggests, a final product with a gel texture. The main function of gels is to provide energy quickly (depending on the formula) and be easy to digest in order not to run out of energy, i.e., without tiring out during the practice of physical exercise.
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Carbohydrates are our main source of immediate energy. This means that they are able to give us quick energy, but not for long. Hence, they have to be recharged during prolonged physical exercise.
Taking an example of cars, if the gas runs out, the car stops. Something similar happens to us, and energy gels help us get that much-needed energy during physical activities.
What can they bring us?
As stated in the definition, gels were originally a mixture of water and carbohydrates, and indeed, they still are. However, today, we can find in the market more technical gels that offer us something more, such as:
1. We can find gels that are enriched with minerals, better known as electrolytes or salts, especially sodium, which is what we lose with sweat and is essential to avoid dehydration. Other minerals that you can find in gels are potassium, chlorine, magnesium, etc.
2. They can also carry vitamins, such as B1, which is directly involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates, i.e., for obtaining energy.
3. Some carry caffeine because it has been well-demonstrated that it improves performance. For example, it helps in delaying fatigue, improving muscle contraction, optimizing the use of fat as an energy source, and stimulating at the mental level.
4. Some also add amino acids such as the BCAAs as they serve as a source of energy and so, they delay fatigue. Another example is taurine because it promotes the transportation of water and nutrients within the muscle cell or arginine, which favors the transportation of oxygen and the elimination of toxins.
How much energy gels should you take?
It is usually recommended by experts that you opt for these gels during prolonged training that exceeds an hour. The amount depends on the intensity of the exercise.
Normally, you can take them if the level is high every 30 minutes if it is less intense (medium level) every 45 minutes and for those of low level, then more or less, one for each hour of exercise. You can also take one before departure for training or running exercise.
If we take it this way, we must be careful that it is not long before the output so as not to produce hypoglycemia, the opposite effect to the desired one, i.e., not only that it does not give us energy, but that it takes it away from us.
Marathon runners can also take one before departure and then one every 30 minutes due to the intensity of running.
Choose the energy gels that best suit you
The preferences and needs of each athlete vary enormously, and for this reason, some gels will work better for some, and others will work better for the rest. It is crucial to emphasize this so that you value this aspect when buying the gels that best suit your characteristics.
The main characteristics that we must observe to make the right choice for our running gels are the amount and type of carbohydrates, caffeine content, and salts as well as the fluidity of the gel itself. Of course, the taste is essential too because it can be an incentive or otherwise a penance.
It is important to emphasize that although the gel is very liquid, it is always necessary to drink some water since, for the correct assimilation of nutrients, the concentration of carbohydrates should remain below 10%. For example, if a gel contains 20 grams of carbohydrates, we should consume around 200ml of water.
What can go wrong if energy gels are taken repeatedly?
You must remember not to stuff your stomach overly because your digestion process is likely to slow down during your run. Therefore, you must wait for at least 45-60 minutes between the intake of the gels.
Alternatively, you can wait for 6-7 miles in order to ensure that you don’t take too much of it at once. You can also try to alternate between non-caffeine energy gels and caffeine energy gels so that you do not end up taking too much caffeine.
Another important thing to remember is that you must train with your energy gels first before using them directly on the final race day. If you practice with the gels, your body will adapt to it and will use it while running and so, you will not have any problems on the final race day.
Hence, if you keep these things in mind, nothing will go wrong with your energy gels.
Conclusions to make a decision on what to take
We have seen that we can compare the energy gels according to the content of carbohydrates, mineral salts, caffeine, and the proportion of water with respect to the carbohydrate content. To make the correct choice, we need the gel or gels that we choose to adapt to our nutrition strategies.
The content of carbohydrates we need will depend on the consumption of carbohydrates that we have programmed. They can vary between 30 and 60 grams per hour, and even reach 90 in some sports.
It also depends on the consumption of other energy supplements such as sports drinks or energy bars. It is necessary to contemplate the total amount of carbohydrates and perform the calculation.
The salt content of gels is usually low and is not affected by the salt content of isotonic drinks, but it is still advisable to take this aspect into account when selecting a gel. Experts recommend consuming energy gels, preferably with water.
Calculating the caffeine content is quite important because we have to be careful not to exceed 3 mg of caffeine per body weight per day to avoid any discomfort or digestive disorder. A recommended nutritional strategy by experts is to alternate gels with and without caffeine during training or competitions.
The proportion of water in relation to the carbohydrate content of a gel, which gives us its fluidity is a matter of taste since it is necessary to drink at least 200ml of water when consuming each gel so as not to exceed the 10% concentration of hydrates.
According to Professor Keith Baar from the University of California, “You shouldn't need to use gels unless you're running for well over an hour. Unless you're going for a long period of time and you're really trying to go fast, you don't need to take additional carbohydrates.”
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In addition to that, some studies even recommend that we can consume around 30-60 gm of carbohydrates every hour of activity. This consumption should be combined with a healthy amount of hydration in order to sustain endurance and activity.
Therefore, choose your energy gel according to the characteristics indicated above: the types and combination of carbohydrates, salts, caffeine, texture, flavor, without fructose, and whether or not it is ecological.
Once we take into account all these aspects, we must try the consumption of gels in training sessions and during physical activities to understand how to start running as well as what works for us and what doesn’t.