I’ve run ultramarathons (foot races that are longer than the marathon distance of 42.195km) that took only five hours. I’ve also completed a few that lasted over 24 hours. Successfully finishing an ordeal of this magnitude is strongly tied to how well you fuel and hydrate.
Ultrarunners have an inside joke: Ultramarathon is not a running contest. It’s an eating one.
That’s why an energy gel for ultras should fit these three criteria.
- Taste – Scorching heat, freezing nights, and treacherous landscapes, these are just a few of our favorite things. We are often out in the wild without support for hours, so it’s crucial to have gels that taste halfway decent.
- Weight vs. the amount of carbohydrates – We already have to carry many gears (rain shell, first-aid kit, flasks, filter, headlamp, power bank, etc.), so cut weight where you can. Ideally, each energy gel should weigh about 30g and provides 100 calories and 20g of carbohydrates.
- Packaging – Compact enough to fit the different pockets of hydration vests and packs. The gel should also be easy to open. Nothing is more annoying than struggling to tear open a sachet while fatigued.
Below are my favorite energy gels for ultramarathons for your reference. Man…they have powered me through some tough times.
Honey Stinger Gold
At 30g, Honey Stinger Gold provides 90 calories and 24g of carbohydrates. It’s 95% organic honey, so it offers an array of micro-nutrients as well, notably vitamin B complex.
The taste and consistency of Honey Stinger Gold are naturally…honey-like. If you are a regular energy gel eater and enjoy the taste of honey, then Honey Stinger is likely a good choice. Packaging is compact and fits in most belts, vests, and packs. It’s easy to tear open and won’t make a mess. Everything makes sense. Here’s a full review.
In the flavor category, I give Maurten Gel100 two thumbs up. The brand made its energy gels “more tasteless”, instead of adding flavoring, to solve the unsolvable gel flavor issue. In a roundabout way, it sort of did provide a good solution.
Maurten’s biggest selling point is its hydrogel technology. Carbohydrates encapsulated in a hydrogel can bypass the stomach to the intestines, where they can be absorbed faster and without causing gastrointestinal distress, the company claims.
Each sachet is 40g and contains 100 calories and 25g of carbohydrates. The downside is its higher price but it’s undoubtedly one of the best options I’ve tried. Here’s a full review.
Hammer Peanut Butter
At 30g, Hammer Peanut Butter packs 100 calories and 20g of carbohydrates. Pretty good bang for the weight. I’m one of those maniacs that eat peanut butter straight out of the jar with a spoon, so this flavor is right in my wheelhouse. Hammer plays up its branded chain amino acids (BCAA) content, which helps with preventing muscle tissue breakdown and fatigue during exercise.
Hammer has been in the energy fuel business for decades, so their products are effective and packaging simply works. There’s a reason hundreds of professional athletes race with this brand.
GU Vanilla Bean
This 30g energy gel provides 100 calories and 22g of carbohydrates per packet, just what the body needs. It also includes extra goodies such as 450 mg of BCAA, 60 mg of sodium, 20 mg of caffeine, and electrolytes potassium and calcium. It’s a well-balanced option and my go-to caffeinated fuel.
If you’re a fan of vanilla ice-cream or vanilla milkshake, it’s a syrupy version of that type of taste. Obviously, I still wouldn’t want to eat Vanilla Bean daily, but the taste isn’t bad as race fuel.
GU is one of the first to package energy gels in this kind of broad at the bottom and narrow at the top design. It’s a format that endurance athletes are very used to by now.
When it comes to natural and sustainability, it doesn’t get any better than 100% maple syrup. And as an endurance fuel, it’s an excellent option as well. Each gel contains 28 ml or about 28g of maple syrup, providing 25.8g of carbohydrates and 103 calories. It’s energy-packed!
The patented one-hand snap design is where 32GI gets an A plus plus! Its energy gels come in a flat packet the size of a credit card. Simply snap the package in half with only one hand to open up a crack at the center and suck. It’s easy-breezy and mess-free.
At 27g, it provides 84 calories (on the low side) and 21g of carbohydrates. Regarding taste and consistency, there are no surprises. If you’ve eaten gels before with no issue, you should be okay with 32GI’s flavor and texture.
Morinaga Wieder In Jelly Energy
Westerners probably have never heard of Morinaga Weider, but this is a staple for those of us in East Asia (Japan, Taiwan, or Hong Kong). The company markets the energy pouches as quick meal replacements for working professionals. But endurance athletes soon discovered that they’re great as a sports fuel.
Regarding flavor and consistency, it’s just like grape jello, which is not bad at all, and the company recommends keeping it in the fridge and eating it chilled (a bit difficult to do during an ultra, lol).
Each pouch weighs 180g and provides 180 calories but only 45g of carbohydrates, not a lot for that much weight. However, it provides vitamin A, B complex, C, D, E, and 40g of sodium. The pouch design comes with a twist cap. You can take a few gulps and close it for later in the run, which is quite convenient.
Energy gel tips for ultramarathons
There really should be one more criteria, which is, does the energy gel stress your gastrointestinal (GI) system? However, in my opinion, whether an energy gel upsets your stomach has less to do with the brand and more to do with how and when you consume it.
There are three systems that “fight” for your blood: muscles, digestion, and cooling. That’s why your legs feel heavier after a meal, why it’s harder to refuel and run on hot summer days, or why your stomach often rebels when you’re physically pushed to the limit.
Here are a few tips from my past experience. Hope they are helpful with resolving GI stress.
- Make sure you drink water. Every 20g of carbohydrates should be chased with 250 ml of water. This helps your body process the energy gel.
- Consume 1g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight per hour. For example, a 60kg athlete should take in 60g of carbohydrates each hour, about 2-3 energy gels. More doesn’t always mean better though, so beware of sugar overload and sweetness fatigue.
- I typically aim to eat 150 calories per hour through a mix of fluids and solid food.
- If you carry a hydration vest or pack that fits two flasks (most do), I’d suggest filling one with water and the other with a sports drink.
- Eat and drink regularly in small dosages. This is an excellent way to steadily replenish energy and fluids without over stressing the stomach.
- I prefer energy gels that provide some bells and whistles like Vitamins, amino acids, minerals, electrolytes, etc. After all, you deplete more than just glycogen on these super long challenges.
- Better be prepared than sorry. Sometimes your crew gets lost on the way to meet you, or you can’t locate a drop bag. Always have some extra fuel with you in case of the unexpected.
- Energy bars are also a big part of my ultra fueling strategy. For ultra-long adventures, solid food is a must for me. Getting from one water station to the next sometimes takes several hours, so bars are perfect for these situations.
- Here are the best energy gels of 2022 based on sales and Internet reviews. Discover your own favorite energy gels for ultramarathons.