Do I need energy gels?
Do energy gels work?
Are energy gels just hype or the real deal?
These are some of the frequently asked questions we’ve received. Today, we will categorize these inquiries into “are energy gels worth it?“
As with most sports nutrition and fueling topics, every athlete is different and has varied goals. Now that we got that out of the way, here is one website’s suggestion. Let’s examine this question from two vantage points: performance and cost.
Energy gels are worth it if you are exercising at a moderate-to-hard intensity and for more than 90 minutes.
Let’s use marathon running as an example. A fit runner can store between 90-120 minutes worth of glycogen going at marathon to near lactic threshold pace. However, energy gels are likely unnecessary if your run is under 60 minutes, if your pace is an easy effort, or if you have time to eat a carbohydrate-rich meal before the run.
Energy gels are worth it because they do work. Carbohydrates (particularly sugar) are an easily absorbable fuel, and energy gels provide precisely that. It’s a carbohydrate-rich, gel-like substance conveniently packaged to replenish lost calories, glycogen, and other nutrients during exercise.
Energy gels are worth it because they are convenient. We see a fast-growing variety of energy gel options in the market. Some provide caffeine, some add amino acids to delay muscle fatigue, some have electrolytes and more water content for hydration, and some include all of the above and then some.
In trail running or other activities that require you to be out in the wilderness for hours without aid stations and modern convenience, energy gels are not just convenient but sometimes life-saving. See our picks for the best energy gels for ultras.
Additionally, we’ve all been stuck at work and had to skip meals or pressed the snooze button one too many times before a morning run. Something easy and quick to top off your glycogen level is helpful.
However, energy gels are not worth it as an everyday supplement. They are typically categorized as race-day fuel for taste and health reasons. Ingesting something that drastically spikes your blood sugar is, without a doubt, unhealthy and, for many people, not appetizing.
Health is top priority. So when possible, fuel with real food. Oats, whole-grain toast, and fruits, to name a few, are excellent pre-workout meals packed with carbohydrates and other macro- and micro-nutrients. Moreover, nutrients from natural sources are the most bioavailable. If time permits, eat 1-2 hours before a workout to allow complete digestion.
Using marathons as an example again, I would like to share my own preference.
Unlike elite marathoners with separate aid station tables for their preferred fuel placed conveniently for a quick grab, we mere mortals have to elbow each other to get a cup of water or a piece of fruit. Extra effort and wasted seconds add up. An energy gel can help you avoid aid station scrums.
However, I’ve also run marathons to sitesee or pace running friends. I didn’t have to over-exert myself and had ample time at aid stations to get drinks and food. On those occasions, energy gels weren’t necessary.
This is the direct interpretation of the “worth it” question.
Energy gels vary in price. They range from US$1-2 per pack to over US$3 for some with newer “technology” or with all the bells and whistles.
Putting all the fancy science and marketing aside, the most important function of energy gels is delivering simple sugars such as glucose and fructose, which can be quickly converted into glycogen. In short, they are essentially concentrated sugar water.
I’m not saying innovations are pointless. Energy gels have certainly improved in flavor, mouth-to-muscle time, and stomach stress prevention over the years.
Personally, I’m not too fond of the taste of many energy gels. So when I do find something palatable, I don’t mind spending a little extra.
However, if you’re new to endurance sports, don’t spend more than necessary chasing the latest and the newest. For those that don’t have an overly sensitive gastrointestinal system, almost any reputed brand will do the job just fine.
Your focus should be doing the right things consistently.
Don’t skip workouts.
Eat well and recover well.
Not thinking about it, reading about it, or talking about it.
Show up and do it. Day in and day out.
Once you’ve maximized your fitness to a certain extent, you can start allocating more time and money to nutritional science to squeeze out every last drop of your potential.
If you have time, enjoy DIY, or demand more personalization, we’ve shared some fuel alternatives that are super duper affordable and equally effective.
To answer the question, a couple of bucks for an energy gel is certainly not outrageous for most of us that are already shelling out hundreds of dollars for race entries, gear, and trips. Energy gels are proven fuel options and are worth it, in my book.
Looking for energy gel recommendations? Here are a few energy gels reviewed by us recently.