The truth about energy gels

they really work!

by Mike Mathewson

the lie

An article published on bikerumor.com was recently brought to my attention titled Physiology and Nutrition: Why Not Energy Gels?. In the article the author states that energy gels are one of the most detrimental fuel sources for performance.

Wow, seriously? After 20+ years in the energy gel industry and hearing countless success stories from professional athletes to weekend warriors, how can this be true?

As the president of a company that manufactures energy gels this certainly caught my attention, and after reading the article I thought it deserved taking a moment to explain why the author is simply wrong.

You can read the full article for yourself (link to article), but here is the author’s summary and conclusion:

“First, they are a concentrated carbohydrate ingested into a compromised gut (blood flow is diverted to the muscles and skin), increasing the osmotic pressure within the digestive system (read: slow gastric emptying, water drawn into the stomach to aid in the emptying). Second, they are usually comprised of maltodextrin and fructose; the two carbohydrates which create a significant hyperosmotic environment in the small intestines, causing additional water to be pulled into the GI tract to reduce the pressure exerted by the sugar molecules. Why is this significant in the world of training and performance? Fluid loss during exercise is difficult to mitigate and maintain blood volume. Blood volume is critical for sweating and muscle metabolism. Why would you ingest a product that accelerates dehydration and GI distress?”

where did the author go wrong?

At the beginning of the article the author states “most usage directions state that a gel must be consumed with 2-4oz water”. From there she assumes that the athlete does not consume any more water, and therein lies the fundamental flaw in all of her logic that follows.

This subject has been written about extensively and most people now know that energy gels have to be consumed with water (not a sports drink) in order to be properly diluted and absorbed, and NOT just 2-4 ounces of water! The energy gel manufacturers have done an absolute horrible job of providing proper education on energy gel usage and how much water is required. 2-4 ounces of water may be enough to get the gel out of your mouth and down to your stomach, but it’s not nearly enough to allow your body to absorb the gel.

Water is the transport vehicle for energy gels and it is important that you have enough available water in your GI system to dilute the gels down to an isotonic state (equal concentration to cellular fluids), so that the gels can be rapidly absorbed and give you the energy benefits that they are designed to provide.

On each pack of e-Gel for example, we clearly state that the athlete needs to consume approximately 14 ounces of water for each gel consumed. This is the amount of water that will be carried along with the gel into your cellular system when it is absorbed. However, this does NOT mean that you have to take 14 ounces right when you take the gel, what’s important is that you are getting enough water in between each pack of gel that you consume.

When you start your training or competition hopefully you are fully hydrated. If you are then you will have ample water in your stomach and GI system to absorb your first gel. The problems can occur if you continue to consume gels and you get behind on your water intake. If you maintain the proper ratio and stay hydrated then you won’t have any problems. For marathon runners for example we generally recommend taking a gel before a water stop, then go through a couple more water stops before taking your next gel pack. It’s really quite easy, after all, you have be be drinking anyway to stay hydrated.

At Crank Sports we have made it a priority to provide athletes with the education required to properly use energy gels, and I have personally talked to thousands of athletes about this very subject since we started Crank Sports in 2001. 

problems with energy gels are due to one of these mistakes:

not using enough water

2-4 ounces per gel is not enough!!

drinking something other than water

Sports drinks are already isotonic and can’t dilute the gel down as required

consuming other "food" with the gel

When you start eating bars, chews, sport beans, fruit, etc., along with your gel and water, the result is a highly concentrated “soup” in your stomach. You’re just asking for problems. Did you know that it takes a banana 4 hours and 15 minutes to leave your stomach?!!

Once they make the correction and start using the gels properly, all the problems go away and they realize how beneficial energy gels are.

bottom line

If you use energy gels during an endurance activity and only consume a couple ounces of water for each pack, you’re going to have problems, but the problems may be even WORSE than the author described! You will also become severely dehydrated which can hospitalize or kill you. But this has nothing to do with the energy gel, endurance athletes need to stay hydrated, period.

Energy Gels are not the problem, in fact they are the BEST sports nutrition solution for endurance athletes. They are easily absorbed (with water), the complex carbs and low sugars provide sustained energy (without the sugar BONK), and in the case of e-Gel also provide electrolyte replacement to maintain hydration and avoid cramping.

But yes, you do have to use them properly!

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