Energy Gel: How to use them to maximize your performance?
In this article, we'll take a look at how an energy gel or other carbohydrate supplement works and help you understand how often they should be used to maximize your performance and energy on race day.
Before getting into the heart of the matter, let's remember the golden rule in sports nutrition: do not test new products during an event. Take advantage of the workouts to see how your body reacts to the different products you use and find the ideal timing for their consumption.
How does an energy gel work?
The body uses two sources of energy to fuel the muscles when you run: fats and carbohydrates. Fats are abundant, but they must be transformed in order to be consumed by your muscles: the process takes time, which makes fat a very inefficient source of energy when you run faster than a pace equivalent to 60-70% of your VO2max.
So, during intense physical exertion your body is energized mainly thanks to carbohydrates. The greater the effort, the more energy will be generated from carbohydrates. The problem is that we can only store a limited amount of carbohydrates in our muscles: the equivalent of 90 minutes of reserve running at a standard speed. Without external contribution, you empty your muscular carbohydrate stores well before the end of your effort.
This is where energy gels come in: they are designed to refresh your carbohydrate energy reserves which are emptied during your effort. Nevertheless, the carbohydrates ingested by the gels do not always reach the muscles. They remain very useful and we will now see why.
There are many types of energy gels: some are liquid while others are more consistent.
Why use energy gels?
Carbohydrates are stored in the muscles and circulate through the blood. Your performance during the effort is based on muscle carbohydrate reserves. For carbohydrates to reach the muscles, they must be digested, cross the wall of the intestine and finally be absorbed by the muscles. The process takes time and is not very effective.
However, the boost effect of energy gels is real and very palpable, this is mainly due to the fact that our brain supplies itself with carbohydrates exclusively through the bloodstream. The more glucose the muscles absorb, the less the brain receives and you will experience this feeling of fatigue: over long distances for example or if you have not eaten as you should beforehand. Energy gels give you a whiplash effect and help the mind to feel fit but will not necessarily help to guard against the feeling of tiredness in the legs. To avoid it, special attention should be paid to the timing and frequency of their use.
When to consume an energy gel?
As often on sports nutrition topics, the timing is very personal : each runner absorbs and uses carbohydrates at a different rate: some feel the effects of an energy gel just a few minutes after taking it while for others it will take a quarter of an hour.
Most of the variation is due to the way your stomach reacts to freezing. Indeed, during an intense physical effort, your body has a tendency to divert blood flow from the stomach to help your legs keep going. Depending on the effort and the occurrences, this can range from a slowdown to almost a complete stop. This is why it often happens that athletes reject the liquids or gels they ingest at the end of the effort. There are lightly salty energy gels, whose hint of salt helps break the saturation of sweetness and above all very good! (Clif , GU, Mulebar, Meltonic, ...)
To avoid this embarrassing situation, the key is to start planning ahead, before it's too late. At the beginning of the race, before the effort required of your body is too much, you have a better chance of absorbing carbohydrates quickly and efficiently, without digestive problems. So, take the first gel after 45 minutes / 1 race time seems appropriate. Some runners use an energy gel just before the start of the event: it's a matter of preference, but before a race we recommend a substantial breakfast or an energy cake instead. This will allow you to build up your reserves without eating only carbohydrates for several hours at a time.
How often to consume them?
Remember that digestion is slowed down or even almost stopped the further you go in the race ; it is advisable to be careful not to overload the cozy stomach. We advise you to wait for 45min at one hour between each for athletes with the most sensitive stomachs.
In addition, waiting for 45 min at one hour between two shots of energy gel allows to avoid overloading your blood with carbohydrates. The sugars in the gel are first absorbed into the blood before reaching the muscles or other organs: the sugar therefore remains in the blood until it is absorbed. Thus, if you bring the energy gel intakes too close, you will know the same fate as the children left alone on Easter day: sick by excess sugar.
Finally, keep in mind that your digestive system, like most of the mechanisms in our body can be trained. That is why consuming gels during training, ideally at the same pace and at intervals similar to those of your consumption during the race will allow to habituate your body to maintain the digestive activity during the effort : gradually, you will digest gels more easily. Try different gels and find what works best for you. If conventional gels do not pass well, an energy gel containing water (e.g. High5 Aqua, Maurten, ...) can be more digestible.
Some tips for the end
After giving you an overview and hopefully understandable of the effects of energy gels on your body, we leave you with some practical tips to make the best use of them.
For athletes with a sensitive stomach, here is a little tip to facilitate the digestion of gels: take less and more often. For example, consume a quarter of the gel every twenty minutes. This allows to smooth carbohydrate intake and thus facilitate digestion.
Finally, our last tip and arguably the most important: always take an energy gel with water. Without water, the digestion of the gel will take longer. You should also avoid drinking an energy drink with the gel, since you simply risk consuming too many sugars at once.
Basically, using energy gels is a balancing act, but once you have mastered the performance contribution is noticeable. Train yourself !