Are energy gels and sports drinks the same thing? The answer is not really but also kind of yes.
Energy gels and sports drinks serve the same purpose: replenishing lost nutrients, particularly carbohydrates and electrolytes. Putting all the fancy marketing aside, they are essentially sugar water of differing concentrations and deliver simple sugars that can be quickly converted into glycogen.
An energy gel delivers carbohydrates in a highly concentrated solution and requires water intake to assist digestion. And a sports drink does the same but in a more diluted mixture and ideally should also hydrate the body.
As with most topics regarding sports nutrition, it depends on the individual athlete, and different situations call for different options. Below are my past learning on fueling with gels and drinks and their pros and cons for your consideration.
What are energy gels and their pros and cons?
Here’s the simple and classic definition of an energy gel: a carbohydrate-rich, gel-like substance conveniently packaged to replenish lost calories and nutrients during exercise.
As soon as the gel enters your mouth, the enzyme salivary amylase immediately begins to process the simple sugars. Most of the gel is then swallowed into the digestive tract, where carbohydrates are broken down to cross from the small intestine to the bloodstream in the form of glucose.
Insulin is triggered and activates cells to use the glucose or store it for later. The whole process is fast. Mouth-to-muscle time usually takes 5-15 minutes, depending on the athlete.
The pros of energy gels:
- I usually feel energy surges of various magnitude within 5-8 minutes; for some brands, even faster. Gels simply work, especially for shorter and faster events.
- Compact, light, and fits well in most fuel-carrying gears.
- Super easy to consume when on the move, even at higher intensities.
The cons of energy gels:
- Obviously, the taste ain’t great and I’m always wary of the dreaded sweetness fatigue.
- Sugar spikes and crashes are common side effects.
- Still have to worry about chasing the gels with fluids to ensure proper digestion and hydration.
- Unhealthy and not suitable as daily workout fuel.
What are sports drinks and their pros and cons?
Just like gels and bars, sports drinks come in varied formats. Some like Gatorade and Pocari Sweat (a favorite here in Asia) are finished products in plastic bottles. Others are sold in big tubs of powder, and you have to mix it yourself.
As mentioned, sugars are the most critical ingredients, and many sports drinks include the usual extras – electrolytes, caffeine, amino acids, vitamins, etc. – to provide a more balanced fuel than energy gels.
The absorption process is similar to that of gels described above. One difference that can be considered an advantage over gels is sports drinks should already consist of the right amount of water. Therefore, no additional fluids need to be drawn into the stomach for digestion.
The pros of sports drinks
- I’m a fan of powder mixes, which lets me customize. For example, I can go with a more diluted mixture for long and easy efforts that won’t completely drain my stored carbohydrates.
- Drinks are more palatable compared with gels, in my opinion. If you’re like me and don’t like it too sweet, the flavor is customizable too.
- I can also avoid big spikes and troughs of blood sugar levels by mixing a less concentrated solution. It’s a way to prevent gastrointestinal stress.
- Refuel energy + hydrate – killing two birds with one stone.
- Drink mixes are sold in bulk. I mix my drinks in reusable flasks and bottles, making it an environment-friendly fuel option.
The cons of sports drinks
- For races, sports drinks weigh me down. A typical gel is 30g and provides 20g of carbohydrates and 100 calories. The rule of thumb is every 20-25g of carbohydrates require 250 ml of water to process. To get the same amount of carbohydrates and calories as a packet of energy gel, you have to bring 250g of sports drink.
- Conventional wisdom states that endurance athletes should consume 1g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight per hour, meaning a 60kg athlete should take in 60g of carbohydrates each hour. That’s 750g of sports drink, a lot of weight.
- Suitable for workouts but not race days. Non-elite marathoners and half-marathoners don’t have the luxury of placing water bottles throughout the course, so drinks are not practical for us weekend warriors.
My energy gel and sports drink tips and strategies
- For activities under 90 minutes, I’m okay not refueling as long as I had a decent meal before hand.
- Sports drinks can be a better choice for runners with sensitive stomachs. Make a less concentrated solution or take small sips at regular intervals.
- For marathons, I strictly go with energy gels. When running at hard marathon effort, a water bottle weighs me down.
- Have a variety of gel flavors and brands (remember to test them beforehand) to avoid flavor fatigue. I like to save caffeinated ones for later on in the race.
- I sometimes squeeze 1-2 energy gels into my 500 ml water flasks to make a sports drink.
- For every 20g of carbohydrates, aim to drink around 250 ml of water. This is also the widely accepted ratio for mixing energy drinks.
- When using both gels and drinks during the same session, beware of sugar overload caused by chasing gels with a carbohydrate-dense drink.
- Regarding performance and effectiveness, they both work fine for me. I select my fuel according to the event.
If it’s a road race with frequent water stations, I’ll go with gels and eat one right before I grab a cup of water to wash it down. They weigh less, they’re compact and they’re easy.
If it’s a workout where I’m running loops and have a home base to set up water bottles, I’ll go with energy drinks. Run in, take a quick gulp and run out again. Drinks taste better so I prefer it for everyday training.
Sports drinks can be the better choice for ultramarathons, which require a steady, moderate pace. Since I have to carry at least a 12-liter pack/vest with mandatory gears and water flasks for many of these events anyways, weight is not a big concern.