One of the most widely discussed topics in sports nutrition is whether to eat or fast before a workout. Whichever side you lean toward, energy gels can be a convenient tool for daily training.
As with most Internet arguments, there are credible scientific research supporting both sides. Here’s an article about the pros and cons of fasted cardio exercise. Running on an empty stomach, typically done first thing in the morning, is touted to have benefits in optimizing the fat-as-fuel process and fat loss.
And I can also find a piece that says eating before a workout gives you the biggest bang for the buck. Many studies suggest that fueling before exercise can maximize training benefits and may allow you to exercise for longer and at higher intensities. Fasted workouts may also cause sluggishness and low blood sugar.
However, sports nutrition is more art than science. A person’s lifestyle and daily responsibilities are often the deciding factors for the most realistic and suitable habits. Thanks to energy gels, compactly-packaged and carbohydrate-dense, we have daily fueling flexibility.
Some personal thoughts
Most of us are not professional athletes. We don’t have a team of coaches and nutritional scientists at our disposal to track our vitals. Our routines get turned upside down. Regularly. Kids catch colds, last-minute meetings, visiting relatives…life of an average Joe runner can be the most unpredictable. For us, what’s most important is convenience and setting a routine that fits our lives.
That’s why I both fast and eat before workouts, depending on the ebbs and flows of daily responsibilities and the training plan. For instance:
- Before an easy long run, I’d probably skip eating. I also do depletion workouts once or twice during each training block to teach my body to use fat as fuel.
- Got a big interval workout scheduled? I prefer to eat at least an hour before, but work and chores don’t always permit that.
- After a long day at work and still need to punch in a 10km tempo? I want a little boost.
Tips and thoughts: how energy gels can work for you
I usually save energy gels only for races because of taste and health reasons (eating them everyday is just not appealing for me). However, gels are, without a doubt, convenient.
Health is the most important thing. So when possible, fuel with real food. Oats, whole-grain toast, and fruit, 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.
Unfortunately, we’ve all been stuck at work and have to skip meals. Or pressed the snooze button one too many times before a morning run. That’s when energy gels come in handy.
- If you don’t mind the flavor, eating a gel is quick and easy. Mouth-to-muscle time ranges from 5-15 minutes. Pop one gel and you’re ready to go.
- If you’re like me, who doesn’t always appreciate the taste of a massive dose of syrup, mix the gel in a water bottle. Less sweet and more palatable, in my opinion. Most workouts don’t deplete glycogen stores the way full-out race efforts would. So sipping the drink mix in smaller, regular dosages is an excellent way to maintain a steady intake of sugar and calories.
- The rule of thumb is to mix one energy gel (20-25g of carbohydrates) with 250 ml of water. Play around with the proportion and personalize depending on your needs and activity. You can also add a pinch of sea salt for sodium.
- Although I prefer running on an empty stomach for long easy efforts, I bring a gel for emergencies. I’ve experienced low blood sugar during a run. It’s not pleasant.
- Eating a spoonful of maple syrup or honey is also a quick and easy option. Many find these natural sources much better tasting. You can also make a drink following the same ratio (20g carbohydrate:250 ml water).
- Use energy gels for workouts to “practice” race-day fueling. Train your stomach and discover which options are taste bud-friendly. Ideally, you should select a workout that best simulates your goal race. For example, a marathoner can pick a 30km long run or 20+ km progression run to test drive the energy gels selected for race day.