There is a lot of conflicting information out there about energy gels. Here are a few common energy gel myths:
1. Avoid gels with high sugar content
Oh, the irony. Getting glucose and fructose are the only things that matter for energy during endurance activity. Your body NEEDS them. Sugar in the right situation is good! Being anti-sugar is the current fad, but for these circumstances, the anti-sugar people are very wrong.
People who want to avoid sugar go for the maltodextrin-rich gels. Maltodextrin doesn’t “count” as sugar, even though it has chains of weakly-bonded glucose. It has a Glycemic Index much higher than even pure glucose (MDx = 130, glucose = 100). This is the exact effect people try to avoid by not eating sugar. Thus the irony is that maltodextrin is worse on blood insulin levels than plain sugar!
2. Having lots of amino acids (or protein, or vitamins, etc) makes the gel more effective
I’ve got to hand it to GU Roctane on this one. They’ve managed to convince the population that an exceedingly minor amount of amino acids will somehow make them perform better, without even trying to show any science backing it up.
To avoid repeating too much, I’m just going to quote from Energy Gel Central. In summary, protein, amino acids, vitamins, and antioxidants aren’t needed in your energy gels.
Accel Gel and Mud Energy are the only gels that contain protein (5g and 12g per pouch respectively). Research showing a performance advantage DURING exercise of a carbohydrate-protein solution versus a carbohydrate-only solution has been controversial at best, with the current majority believing that protein does not help endurance. (Using protein AFTER exercise is a different story, however, and clearly important for recovery.)
The following categories of ingredients fall into my ‘marketing/fluff category’ because their presence in a gel doesn’t positively affect exercise performance. Energy gels containing any/all of the ingredients below are not any better than a simple energy gel containing just carbohydrate, water and a modest amount of salt. The simple fact is, most energy gels are pretty uniformly similar, so in order to try and sway an athlete into choosing one over the other, nutrition companies resort to throwing in a number of highly marketed ingredients in an effort to increase sales.
Amino Acids: Only one amino acid, beta alanine, actually carries merit as a possible ergogenic aid but because it requires a loading phase (about 2 weeks) and fairly high daily dosages (4-5g), its presence in an energy gel is insignificant. (Chia Surge contains 500mg of beta alanine.) All the other amino acids, which include the branched chain, essential, and non-essential categories, don’t have significant science backing to show they actually help endurance performance. Six gels (Chia Surge, Gu, Hammer, EFS, E-Gel and Wilderness Athlete) contain amino acids in this category.
Vitamins & Antioxidants: No need to really expand here, the addition of vitamins/antioxidants in an energy gel’s formula just makes the overall product look ‘prettier’ to the consumer; not effective for performance, with some studies even showing that these ingredients (antioxidants in particular) may block the beneficial effects of exercise.
“Don’t try anything new on race day.” Why have we all heard that? Seemingly there is a fair amount of food, specifically gels, that upset peoples’ stomachs, causing nausea and the runs (and these aren’t the good kind of runs). So this statement has become very popular to help newbie athletes. What does this really stem from?
By the research I’ve done, there is one main thing that seem to affect this. It’s the ingredient maltodextrin. Many will propose it’s just your digestive system bouncing up and down. This certainly can contribute, but I’ve seen sensitive stomachs be fixed simply by staying away from maltodextrin. This corn-based glucose chain was developed in the last century and increased in popularity more recently in processed foods.
About 20% of the population can’t digest maltodextrin very well, similar to the percent of the endurance population that has stomach side-effects from eating these types of gels. Not shockingly, maltodextrin is also correlated with an increase in stomach bacteria known to be linked to Crohn’s Disease (and other nasty stomach problems). See source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=olano-martin+2000
So if you’re the 1 of every 5 runners who has trouble with gels, stay away from maltodextrin and see if your results improve tremendously, even on race day. There are certainly gels out there that are more natural. Disclaimer: I would still be careful about any foods (new or not) on race day, mostly because my digestive system can’t handle much early in the morning.
4. Maltodextrin lasts longer because it is slow digesting
I’ve heard people say, “it’s a complex carb, so it gives you more energy since it lasts longer.” False. I’m not sure why people think complex carbs don’t spike their blood glucose levels like regular glucose or sucrose (which is table sugar). Maltodextrin has a Glycemic Index of 130, while glucose is only 100. This is a fast absorbing “sugar” and should be thought of as such.
5. Don’t consume more than 4 gels in a day
I’ve seen ultramarathoners take down 70 gels in a row with only good effects. There’s no problem having as many gels as you need, so long as you’re burning those calories.
6. Energy gels always taste bad
This was usually true up until recently. Check out my reviews for gels that actually taste good and are changing the stigma completely.
7. Gels will upset my stomach
See “Never have a new gel on race day” above. About 20% of the population can’t digest maltodextrin very well. Not shockingly, it’s correlated with an increase in stomach bacteria known to be linked to Crohn’s Disease (and other nasty stomach problems). See source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=olano-martin+2000
8. Caffeine in a gel will make me dehydrated
A simple google search will debunk this myth right away. If you’re used to having caffeine in your day-to-day, you have nothing to worry about. Dehydration from caffeine may happen with very large amounts of caffeine intake, however.
I wouldn’t ingest more caffeine via sports nutrition than you have in your daily coffee intake. As a baseline, a cup of Starbucks coffee has 150mg. Most caffeinated gels have between 25mg and 50mg. This is also where testing gels during training can help you better understand how your body reacts.
9. All gels work the same
There are a lot of gels that work well for some people and not for others. If your body isn’t reacting well, another gel may be for you. Look at ingredients lists to see what potential problems there are for your diet. Gluten, “natural” flavorings, caffeine, unusual preservatives: these could all affect us differently.
In terms of how well they work, just make sure there is both glucose and fructose in it (sucrose is actually just a combination of those 2). This will maximize your carbohydrate uptake and ultimate performance (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18202575). Examples of glucose ingredients: maltodextrin, glucose (of course), sugar, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, tapioca syrup, etc. Examples of fructose ingredients: fructose, agave syrup, sugar, evaporated cane juice, etc.
10. It takes 10-15 minutes before a gel kicks in with energy
Newer research suggests as soon as the carbohydrate mixture reaches your mouth, your body responds as if it already has at least some of that energy available. I wouldn’t recommend spitting out your gel though! You will need those carbs.