Running With Gels: How Many Energy Gels Should You Take When Running + Racing?

Avoid bonking with this energy gel guide

As a certified running coach and NASM-certified nutrition coach, the most common questions from long-distance runners are: “When do I need to use energy gels, and how many energy gels do I need when running?”

Energy gels have long been among the most common sources of simple sugars or carbs for half marathon and marathon training and racing.

For these long distance races, you need to have a fueling strategy that will provide a steady stream of glucose to help preserve your glycogen stores and prevent “bonking“ or running out of usable carbohydrates before crossing the finish line.

In this running with gels guide, we will discuss what energy gels are, the benefits of energy gels on longer runs, alternatives in a half marathon or marathon fueling strategy, and how to time your energy gel intake on race day and long training runs.

A person opening an energy gel.

What Are Energy Gels?

Energy gels are among the most popular sports nutrition products for endurance athletes, such as marathon, half-marathon, and ultra-marathon runners.

Although energy gels are often called “running gels” because they are so popular for fuelling long-distance running, they are also used for triathlon training, cycling, and other endurance sports.

Like sports drinks, energy gels provide carbohydrates, usually a blend of glucose and fructose, which are simple sugars.

Different brands of energy gels use different formulations for energy gels. 

Most energy gels provide about 100 calories or 25 grams of carbohydrates per gel.

The types of carbohydrates, the electrolytes, and whether or not you are having a caffeinated energy gel all greatly impact how the energy gel works in the context of running nutrition and digestibility. 

Runners sensitive to fructose should look for energy gels with glucose or maltodextrin. 

Maltodextrin provides carbs but is less sweet, so if you find most energy gels cloying, look for sports nutrition products that are higher in maltodextrin.

Science In Sport (SIS) Isotonic Energy Gels are high in maltodextrin.

A marathon runner taking a cup of water.

Are Energy Gels Good for Marathon Runners?

Because the carbs in energy gels are simple sugars, very little digestion is required before the sugars can enter your bloodstream as usable glucose.

This means that you get usable energy quickly, and the digestive system does not need to work hard to break down complex carbohydrates, proteins, fat, or fiber, which take quite a bit of time and are relatively incompatible with high-intensity exercise.

This is because when you are running or performing the high-intensity exercise, blood flow increases to the heart and muscles, and to compensate for the higher oxygen and nutrient needs of these tissues; blood flow decreases to the digestive tract.

This is why it is difficult to digest food while running, and consuming too many carbohydrates, a heavy meal, fatty foods, or excessive fiber or amino acids before or during exercise can cause cramping, bloating, diarrhea, gas, nausea, and vomiting.

Energy gels, energy chews, sports jelly beans, Gu chomps, and sports drinks are running nutrition products specifically formulated with only simple sugars so that the digestion is minimal and the fueling provides a quick energy source to keep your energy levels stable during longer runs or races.

Note that energy gels aren’t necessarily “healthy” for your everyday running nutrition plan. They are highly processed, but this type of running fuel has its place in your training program.

There are also more natural energy gels like Huma Chia Energy Gels. Studies have demonstrated1Lestari, Y. N., Farida, E., Amin, N., Afridah, W., Fitriyah, F. K., & Sunanto, S. (2021). Chia Seeds (Salvia hispanica L.): Can They Be Used as Ingredients in Making Sports Energy Gel? Gels7(4), 267. https://doi.org/10.3390/gels7040267 that chia seed gels can provide equally effective performance benefits to standard processed energy gels.

Energy chews.

When Do You Need to Use Energy Gels Running?

Using energy gels is unnecessary if you are running under 90 minutes.

This is why fueling during a half marathon may or may not be necessary, depending on your running pace and projected finish time.

If you are going to finish under 1:30, you should not need any energy gels. 

Even sports drinks may or may not be necessary, but you should certainly be following a hydration plan with water and electrolytes.

I would generally recommend sports drinks unless you have a high-simple sugar pre-race snack or breakfast before the race.

If your half marathon time is between 1:30 and 1:45, you should be providing your body with a fuel source during the race and on your longer runs.

Energy gels are optional because you might be able to use sports drinks if you drink enough and have enough calories based on your body weight.

Bottles of sports drinks.

If your half marathon time is between 1:45 and two hours or more, you will need a true fueling strategy with energy gels or a similar sports nutrition or whole foods alternative.

This is because you will need to preserve your glycogen stores, manage your energy levels, and prevent the dreaded feeling of bonking when your muscles run out of carbohydrates as a fuel source.

What about a marathon? How many gels for a marathon are enough?

Marathon training and racing follow the same principles. However, because the marathon distance is twice as long, all marathon runners will need a fuel strategy with energy gels, an alternative running nutrition product, or real foods alternative to energy gels.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM),2American College of Sports Medicine. (2009). Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise41(3), 709–731. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0b013e31890eb86 endurance athletes should ingest 30–60 grams of carbohydrates per hour during workouts lasting 1-3 hours or more. 

Because each energy gel has about 25 grams of carbohydrates, you should have one gel every 45 minutes. You can also take half every 20 minutes.

A person with a running vest on.

How Do You Carry Energy Gels While Running?

There are different ways to carry energy gels during a marathon or long run, such as:

  • Tucked in the pocket of your running shorts
  • Pinned to your shorts or race bib
  • In your hydration pack
  • Pinned to the inside edge of your hat
  • Holding gels in your hand
  • Wearing a waist pack or hydration belt
  • Putting them in the pocket of a handheld water bottle

What If I Don’t Like Energy Gels for Fueling Marathon Training Runs?

Other sports nutrition or running nutrition products can be used instead of energy gels.

Remember that some of the sports nutrition alternatives to energy gels do not provide the exact same number of grams of carbohydrates, calories, electrolytes, or overall nutrition, so you will need to look at the nutrition facts when designing your fueling strategy.

Here are some sports nutrition energy gel alternatives, many of which you can get on Amazon or your local running store: 

A runner eating a granola bar.

There are also energy gel alternatives for those who do not like the taste or consistency of energy gels or who want to use energy gels with other options for longer runs, such as marathon training or ultra racing.

I often recommend trying whole foods alternatives to energy gels, particularly if you don’t have a sensitive stomach or haven’t had much luck with various sports nutrition-fueling products.

Some of the best alternatives to energy gels for running nutrition include the following:

  • Raisins
  • Other dried fruits such as dried pineapple chunks, dates, figs, dried cranberries, and dried apple rings
  • Banana chips
  • Fresh bananas if you carry a hydration pack or a running vest and have space for larger running fueling options
  • Applesauce packets
  • Baby food packets high in carbohydrates, such as mashed banana, sweet potato, pears, apples, oatmeal, etc.
  • Maple syrup packets
  • Honey packets 
  • Yogurt covered raisins
  • Jelly beans
A runner looking at a granola bar.

How Do You Use Energy Gels?

Here are a few tips for how to use energy gels while running:

#1: Practice Your Marathon Fueling Strategy

Do not wait until race day to try to use energy gels. 

Use your long training runs to practice your exact fueling strategy, including the timing and type of fuel source you will use on race day. 

Many runners experience GI upset with excessive intake of simple sugars, but with practice, you can actually train your gut to handle digesting these products while running more easily. 

#2: Experiment With Different Types Of Energy Gels or Alternatives

There isn’t a “best energy gels for runners.”

As a marathon runner myself, I have a super sensitive stomach, and I am well aware that certain energy gels work well for me, and some energy gels and sports nutrition products just don’t. 

Every runner will have their own preference in terms of palatability, taste, and digestibility for energy gels, chews, sports beans, sports drinks, or any other type of running nutrition. 

Maurtens 100 Hydrogel has no flavor or colors, so it can be a good option for those who don’t like the normal fruit flavors, peanut butter, vanilla, or chocolate of most energy gels.

Gels come in different thicknesses, from very thick like a paste, to quite liquidy, like a sports drink. Try these different types in your long run to see which ones work best for you.

A runner grabbing a water bottle during a road race.

#3: Drink Water With Energy Gels

Most energy gels for runners are thick and sticky. 

Make sure to drink at least 4 to 6 ounces of water with every energy gel to help wash down the consistency and facilitate digestion of the glucose into your bloodstream. 

This will also help manage your hydration strategy in tandem with your fueling strategy, so you don’t have to think about drinking sports drinks or water separately from fueling.

Do not take energy gels with sports drinks, as this will be too much sugar all at once and can upset your stomach.

#4: Use Your Teeth

It is sometimes difficult to open energy gel packets while running, so if you can’t rip it with your fingers, I sometimes rip it open with my teeth (this is not dentist-approved advice!).

A granola bar.

#5: Use Caffeinated Energy Gels Sparingly

If you like caffeine for running to enhance endurance3Guest, N. S., VanDusseldorp, T. A., Nelson, M. T., Grgic, J., Schoenfeld, B. J., Jenkins, N. D. M., Arent, S. M., Antonio, J., Stout, J. R., Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Goldstein, E. R., Kalman, D. S., & Campbell, B. I. (2021). International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and exercise performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition18(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-020-00383-4 and increase energy levels, consider caffeinated energy gels. 

However, unless you are only having one or two energy gels on your training runs or during your race, you won’t be able to have caffeinated gels for every gel as this would be way too much caffeine.4Mayo Clinic. (2020, March 6). Caffeine: How much is too much? Mayo Clinic; Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/caffeine/art-20045678

Consider working with a sports nutritionist to help you work on a marathon fueling strategy and overall running nutrition plan.

To accompany your race fuelling, check out our hydration guide for runners:

References

Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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