Thursday, March 22, 2012

To Gel or Not to Gel

Well Spring has sprung and if you are like me, you knew several weeks ago Spring was coming early to the deep South when the pollen was out in force long before the official start of the season.  At any rate, the moderate temps and good weather of Spring are here and it seems to put a call out to everyone that it's time to get outside again and shake off the haze of winter.  As we hit the roads and trails again, one issue seems to always bubble up to the surface and plague runners and multi-sport athletes at all levels.  The problem is knowing when they should use an energy gel and when they should leave them at home.  We all can benefit from gels as long as they are used in the proper manner. To use them properly we need to understand them better, which in turn, will change the way we look at gels.   

On the most basic level energy gels are sports drinks without the water, think of dehydrated Gatorade® or Powerade®. A gel, is a concentrated carbohydrate source that can serve as relief from "Oh my gosh, I think I'm gonna die" in the middle of a long run, they can give you a boost at the end of a race, they can be a compliment to your endurance nutrition or a pre-recovery start for your fueling requirements after a long race or training day. I am a believer in gels from my own personal experience, but gels are not for everyone and they do not all work the same.  They all provide the same basic nutrition which is complex carbohydrates and little if any protein or fat.  They are around 110 calories but different manufactures derive their carbs from different sources.  GU gets its energy from maltodextrin and fructose while Clif derives theirs from brown rice syrup and PowerGel or PowerBar gel uses glucose, fructose, and sodium as it sources.  All of these are usually easy to digest and quickly absorbed to provide you with that extra boost of energy.  If you are a regular user of gels, then you have probably tried all of the different ones from HammerGel to GU.  

The one thing I do not recommend is trying a gel for the first time at a race.  When you are nervous or hot and sweaty, if you put something new on your stomach it might not react well.  I recommend trying them on a training day first before attempting to use them in a race.  Learn which ones seem to work better for you and how your body reacts.  I personally like GU and HammerGel, they seem to give me the kick I need on those rough days and boost my performance during races. 

As for how best to use them, most manufacturers agree that you should take one about 15 minutes before the start of a long run or endurance activity and then again every 30-45 minutes during your activity.  They need to be consumed with 240 ml (or about 8 oz) of liquid, preferably water since these are basically dehydrated minerals and electrolytes. If you are planning to run for around 45 minutes to and hour, unless you have missed your regular meals that day or you have been eating poorly, a gel probably will not be necessary.  You should have enough carbs stored as glycogen in your liver and glucose in your blood to sustain you through a workout that length.  On the other hand if you are planning to go beyond and hour, then you need to think seriously about adding a gel or some type of nutrition to your routine to replace those lost nutrients.  Some of us might think well I have plenty of fat to burn so I dont need to add more calories in just because I am working out longer.  Unfortunately fat is metabolized so slowly, it is a poor source of energy and the last thing the body will use.  The body will burn the glucose in your blood first and then the liver will convert glycogen to glucose and release it into the blood to help maintain your energy level. When those glucose and glycogen levels fall, so does your energy level and performance. That is the reason it is so important to replenish your carbohydrate stores when you are pushing your body to perform for long periods of time.

While I am no expert, hopefully this helps explain the basic chemistry that takes place in your body when you exercise.  I know we all want to perform our best every time we go out for a run, swim, or long bike ride.  I firmly believe you are best at understanding your own body and it's needs.  You know how you feel and what affects you better than anyone.  With all of the sources of quick energy and "Nutrition" available today, you have to do a little research to find what works best for you. 

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