If you’re building up to a marathon or an ultra, you’ve probably already sifted through plenty of guides telling you how to structure your diet during your training and in the hours leading up to your race. But what about diet during your race?
How you refuel during a race is equally important for an endurance runner’s nutrition, yet it’s often under-considered or neglected.
Deciding what’s best for the mid-race refuel is a contentious topic in the running community, with some swearing by all-natural options such as dried fruit and nuts, while others prefer soft sweets or even baby food.
What you might hear recommended most often, however, are energy gels.
Energy gels have long been popular with endurance athletes and can be a great option to deliver a quick hit of energy to your fatiguing muscles. But to experience their maximum benefit, it’s important to make sure you’re using them properly.
Above all, it’s vital to know how often you should be taking energy gels during a race.
To help you, this article will walk you through:
- Why Is It So Important To Refuel During A Race?
- What Are Energy Gels – And Why Should I Consider Using Them?
- How Frequently Should I Take Energy Gels During A Race For The Maximum Benefit?
- How Far Into The Race Should I Take My First Energy Gel?
- The Takeaway: How Often Should I Take Energy Gels?
Let’s get started!
Why is it so important to refuel during a race?
Running marathons burn a massive amount of energy.
When we run, our bodies have two main energy sources to draw from: fat and carbohydrates. Though we have a lot more energy stored in fat than we burn during a marathon, it takes a long time for our bodies to convert it into usable energy.
As a result, the bulk of our marathon energy supply comes directly from carbohydrates.
Glycogen is the name for carbohydrates that our bodies have stored in our muscles, ready to burn the instant they are needed. On a regular day, our muscles’ stockpile of glycogen is enough to cover all the energy they’ll need.
However, running a marathon isn’t what we’d call a regular day.
In fact, an endurance runner will typically have burned through their glycogen stores within 60 to 120 minutes of racing, depending on their pace.
So to keep our muscles firing, it’s essential to take on more carbohydrates during the race to replenish our dwindling glycogen supply.
That’s where energy gels come in.
What are energy gels – and why should I consider using them?
Simply put, energy gels are a quick, convenient way to replenish your depleted carbohydrate and nutritional stores during long-distance runs.
Energy gels are essentially liquid carbohydrates. Most are based on maltodextrin, which is made from corn starch, though some are combined with fructose (the naturally occurring sugar in fruits).
Because maltodextrin and fructose are simple sugars, our bodies can digest them quickly and put their energy to use in our muscles.
If we refueled mid-exercise with the complex carbohydrates found in foods like bread or legumes, our bodies would still be breaking them down into a usable form long after our muscles’ energy reserves have run dry.
A sachet of energy gel typically provides 20 to 30 grams of carbohydrates, depending on the brand – roughly the same as a banana. Flavorings are usually added, covering everything from standard fruit flavors to Torq’s Rhubarb and Custard or Apple Crumble creations.
Gel-Style Energy Drinks
Gels also come in the form drinks mixes – which can be easier for runners to digest than those sticky, sweet mixes.
For example, Fuel2O is a high-calorie, electrolyte-rich, easy-to-digest, drink mix that is designed to keep you going during a long endurance effort. One serving of Gnarly Fuel2O contains 100 calories per 12 ounces of water, which can be the perfect hourly caloric intake for shorter training sessions, while longer efforts may require two servings per hour or 200 calories per 24 ounces.
Where the gels really begin to vary from one another is in their extra additives.
Energy Gel – Added Ingredients!
Many energy gels contain caffeine, which is scientifically proven to improve performance by widening the blood vessels, accelerating the delivery of energy to the muscles. The caffeine hit can also be a helpful motivation boost as the miles begin to stack up!
Electrolytes are another common additive, which helps to replace the essential salts and other minerals we lose through sweat.
Some energy gels are isotonic, meaning they have the same particulate concentration as blood. This makes them easier for our bodies to absorb and ensures the gel won’t dehydrate us further when we take it – which can happen with other mid-race fuel options.
These ingredients can be found in energy bars or sports drinks, but the key advantage of energy gels is their convenience. The concentration of energy into a small sachet of liquid means you can carry all the carbohydrates you need for a race with minimal added weight.
It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that energy gels aren’t suited to every distance.
Given that our muscles’ glycogen stores generally last at least an hour, so any race shorter than this probably won’t require energy gels. For longer events such as ultramarathons, complex carbohydrates which provide a gradual energy release could be more beneficial.
However, for marathons and half-marathons, energy gels can provide the perfect carbohydrate hit – as long as you’ve learned how to get the most out of them!
How frequently should I take energy gels during a race for the maximum benefit?
In general, studies suggest the optimum interval to leave between gel refueling is around 30-45 minutes. However, this is varies depending on the manufacturer’s guidelines and your personal experience with gel routines during your training phase.
The rate at which different energy gel brands recommend you take their products varies widely. Science In Sport (SIS) suggests their isotonic gel should be taken every 20 minutes, while others suggest frequencies as low as 45 minutes.
However, a recent scientific study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research provides strong evidence that endurance athletes perform better with shorter intervals between energy intakes.
The study split a sample of cyclists into three groups.
Members of the first group were given no energy gels at all. Those in the second were given energy gels every 45 minutes (the frequency recommended by the gel’s manufacturer), while the third took them every 30 minutes.
Unsurprisingly, both groups that were given energy gels significantly outperformed the group without energy gels.
However, the group which took the energy gels every 30 minutes held a performance advantage of 5-7 percent over the group which took them every 45 minutes.
This suggests that to get the most benefit out of energy gels, we should take them more frequently.
However, we need to be careful not to go overboard with how often we’re taking energy gels. Typically, humans can only absorb around 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour – equivalent to two or three energy gel sachets.
You need to factor in whether you’re using energy drinks at the same time, as these also are concentrated energy solutions. Consuming too much in a short space of time risks leaving you dehydrated or causing a stomach ache, stopping you in your tracks.
It’s important to stick to the frequency you’ve planned for. If you’ve carried enough energy gels to take one every 30 minutes but accidentally take them every 20 minutes, you’ll soon run out and leave yourself facing a sugar crash through the last few miles.
This leads us on to the single best thing you can do to find the right energy gel and frequency combination for you – try them out for yourself!
Every runner’s body is different. You might find that one energy gel every 45 minutes is enough, that you can’t stand the taste of a particular brand, or that caffeinated gels give you stomach cramps.
It’s vital to do this experimenting during your training phase. After all, nobody wants to be going full-Paula Radcliffe on race day because they’re trying out a new energy supplement.
It’s also worth remembering that the big races are often sponsored by an energy-gel brand who’ll be giving out their products for free around the course. Give their energy gel a try beforehand – if it works for you, you’ll save yourself the effort of carrying around your own!
How far into the race should I take my first energy gel?
Again, this is something worth experimenting with for yourself during training. Everyone absorbs carbohydrates at their own rate, and it could take you anywhere between 2 and 20 minutes to feel your blood sugar spike from the energy gel.
You might find that you benefit most from taking an energy gel just before the race starts so that you feel the energy boost right from the start. Or you might prefer to relax into the race, and leave it until around the half-hour mark before you take your first one.
However, it’s not a good idea to take one more than fifteen minutes before the race begins. If you’re not exercising when your body starts to process the carbohydrates, it will begin the process of converting them to glycogen.
It does this by releasing insulin, a hormone that actually causes your blood sugar to drop. This could leave you feeling drained of energy just as the race is about to begin.
The Takeaway: How Often should i take energy gels?
Key things to take away from this article are:
- How you refuel during a race is equally important as your pre-race diet.
- Energy gels are a quick, conventient way to replenish your depleted carbohydrate and nutritional stores quickly during long-distance runs.
- Studies suggest the optimum interval to leave between gel refueling is around 30-45 minutes.
- However, this will vary depending on the manufacturer’s guidelines and your personal experience with gels.
- Don’t take gels more that 10-15 minutes before the race begins.
- Do not wait till race day to see which gels and refueling intervals work for you – do this during your training runs.
One energy gel every 30-40 minutes is a good rule of thumb. This should be your starting point, but keep adjusting until you find the frequency that you feel the most comfortable with.
Essentially, you want to take your next gel just before you need it. If you take it too early, you risk trying to digest too much sugar at once. Leave it too late and you’ll already be crashing by the time the carbohydrates kick in.
There’s only one way to get this right: practice your gel refuel routine during your training runs!
Getting ready for race day?
If you’re looking for more advice on getting your preparations right for race day, why not check out some of these guides from our in-house running experts!