Updated: Jan 24
Gels and Chews and Drinks, Oh My!
by Jim Nicosia
Welcome to the middle of winter. If you’re like me, winter is a time when you cut back at least a little bit on training, recover from the strange new aches in places you didn’t know could ache, and maybe consider whether you’ll ever be able to run 15 miles in one training session like you did just a few months ago. Maybe you’re spending the time filling your head with lots of useful (and useless) exercise and diet facts—you know, the kinds you swear you’re going to stick to this time (beet juice every day for breakfast with your egg white omelets; cherry juice with your whole grain lunch; Brussels sprouts with chia seeds for dinner).
Maybe you too have reached a point where PR’s no longer mean beating your best time by a minute. Now it’s more like three seconds. And those, for that matter, are coming few and far between. Maybe you even confronted that existential moment when you considered why you keep running if you aren’t even getting consistently better anymore. But then you decided that running wasn’t just about PR’s, but about the sense of satisfaction you get from completing a difficult run, or the camaraderie of sharing the running experience with old and/or new friends.
But you still feel like there’s room inside you for improvement. But how to achieve that improvement is the big question.
Maybe your new year’s resolution is to start attending those speed sessions at the track with the rest of the club on Tuesdays. That should help. Those weekend runs with the team might help motivate you through the cold winter months, as well.
But what about all those, you know, scientific things? Maybe it’s time to consider that you can get more from your body if you actually buy shoes because of how they work biomechanically for you instead of the fact that they’re a kick-ass design and you’ve always loved the color orange. And maybe you shouldn’t do a long run without any water or nutritional supplement.
That’s where I want to go today.
Gels and chews and drinks are probably unnecessary for most races of 10k or less. I’m no scientist. Okay that’s an understatement; the only A’s I ever received for a science course were in acoustics and geology, so if you want to talk about the sound rocks make, I’m your go-to guy. From what I’ve researched, the body only starts depleting its stores of glycogen (that sugary-carbohydratey-type-substance that your muscles need as fuel) after about an hour of intense activity. At that point, they’ll start to use up whatever else they can find as fuel, including consuming themselves. Any of you who have hit “The Wall” during a half-marathon know what it’s like when your body feels like it literally has nothing inside it to propel you further. That’s your body saying, I’m ready to start devouring myself in an attempt to stay alive.
That’s where these supplement things come in.
Category One: Bars
The most important thing you need to know about this, and anything you put into your body, for that matter, is you have to read the label!
The two problems with Running Science are: runners themselves don’t always know what we’re looking for; and running scientists aren’t always creating products that are proven to be helpful in any way. In bars, gels and drinks, the one thing you must always seek is The Almighty Carbohydrate. Despite what the current dietetic trends say, as a runner, you must understand the following four-letter-word equation: CARB=GOOD. There’s more to it than that, but we’ll get to that later.
The second ingredient to check for in the nutritional allowance is protein. While protein is good for building muscle, in no way is any runner building muscle when he/she runs. Furthermore, protein takes a long time to digest and may cause gastrointestinal distress if taken before exercise. I learned this firsthand when I tried using Snickers bars (yes, I’m serious) halfway through some long runs. Peanuts, I discovered, were kind of like gastroliths (any dinosaur fans out there?), tearing away at my stomach as I churned through the last three miles. When I switched to Milky Ways (essentially, a Snickers without peanuts), I had no such problems.
The third item, and potentially most deadly is: Fiber. Unless you enjoy stopping at each and every port-a-potty on a course, I advise you to avoid eating anything that has fiber in it! As Forrest Gump used to say, “And that’s all I have to say about that.”
Recommendation: If you have to fill your belly, Milky Way bars are my suggestion, but only at the end of longer runs, and only if you can’t stomach gels and chews. Most “nutritional” bars out there today are all about protein. They’re generally for weightlifters, not runners. Or at least not runners while they’re running.
Category Two: Drinks
You know these. Gatorade, PowerAde, Vitamin Water. Almost all of the choices available correctly focus on carbohydrates as their primary component. Some are sweeter than others, most have sodium to restore the salt that we will inevitably sweat out of us during our runs. I’m not going to tell you what flavor to use. That’s entirely a personal choice.
The pet peeve I do have is with these increasingly ubiquitous sweeteners that aren’t sugar. Unfortunately, the U.S. government has decided to classify sucralose as a natural sweetener, and foods with the stuff in them don’t even have to list it as such. In this case, you not only have to read the labels, but you have to interpret what it might mean. Sugars (whether sucrose, glucose or fructose) and corn syrup will likely be listed as such. If, however, you see the following mysterious phrase: “natural sweetener,” you are likely looking at sucralose (the ingredient in Splenda).
Aside from the fact that I’m a bit of a nutritional snob here (I like organic milk and eggs, wild fish and non-antibiotic meats), I personally hate the taste of sucralose, find that its aftertaste lingers more than plain old sugar, and frankly, just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it isn’t bad for you. (Remember, asbestos was a natural insulator, too!) I say stay away from the stuff unless you have specific health or dietary restrictions.
Recommendation: anything that doesn’t have NutriSweet, sucralose or “natural flavors.” Sugar is not the enemy, unless you have diabetes, in which case you should stop reading now, crumple this column up and throw it in the garbage.
Category Three: Gels and Chews
Alright, here’s when things get complicated…
I envy those of you who don’t need to augment your long runs with some kind of carbohydrate supplement. Really I do, because if I could avoid the challenging “chew” or dreaded “gel,” I would. I actually have to suppress my gag reflex to even write the word “gel.” Yeah, I know some of you can actually ingest those things without a problem. But I bet you’re also the type of person who can drink diet sodas and eat Twinkies, too right?
For many of us, gels are a necessary evil. Yes, we’ve tried running our half marathons without the aid of the “energy kick” of gels, and it just didn’t work. The wall hit, and it hit hard.
But did you know that all gels were not created equal? Now, I don’t claim to corner the market on gel technology, but I’m still paying off credit card bills for gel purchases from 2017, so I think I have done enough research to feel like I can offer Middle-of-the-Packers some insight. Maybe it’ll save you a few dollars.
First, calories. Like carbohydrates, calories are also GOOD! The word calorie comes from Latin, and actually means heat, so when we athletes say we are “stoking the fire” with food, it’s a fairly literal statement. There is, of yet, no low-calorie energy supplement besides caffeine, and though caffeine is effective, it is an addictive drug. (Don’t believe me? Try going without for a day without your morning mugs of Starbucks and see how you enjoy your afternoon headache.) Besides, caffeine primarily aids in your brain’s perception of tiredness, without providing you with any of the actual calories that your muscles require to perform optimally. In other words, those five hours of energy are a way of depleting your body without your body recognizing it. Long term? Bad idea. When your hamstring pops or your Achilles aches for months on end, maybe you should wonder about the intelligence of depriving your body rather than fueling it. (Did I scare you? Good. Stop with the peppy-zippy stuff!)
Of course, I’m not one to say that all caffeine is bad. I’d be a hypocrite if I did, because I’m a big morning coffee drinker, myself. As such, it’s actually important for me to not cut back on caffeine on race day. Half the gels or chews I choose have caffeine in them, and I’ve found that my body (or is it my mind?) responds a little better to the caffeine, especially in the second half of a 12k run. If you’re not a coffee or soda drinker (tea doesn’t count, by the way, because tea’s caffeine is delivered much more gently and gradually), you shouldn’t be adding caffeine to your regimen unless you’ve tried it during long runs and have found it gives you the mental clarity that is sometimes connected to it.
But let’s get back to the muscles, shall we? Your muscles, like nine-year-old boys, are particularly fond of sugars, because during activity they are regularly depleted of glycogen.
And now we’re getting close to the topic of carbs. You see, most carbs are converted into sugars, but at different rates, and in different measures. Here’s where it gets scientific. If you examine the nutritional information on a pack of gel or chews, you are generally looking for as many calories as you can, and as many carbs as possible.
Most athletes seem to know that carbohydrates in general are what give you the energy kick for an event. What many don’t realize is that all carbohydrates are not created equal. What you really want are the right combination of carbs.
If you look at the nutritional information on any supplement, carbohydrates are divided into two subcategories: sugars and dietary fiber. You’re left to do the math in your analysis of a gel. Dietary fiber is notthe right kind. We’ve already mentioned the hazards of too much fiber before a run. Well, then, the only other item listed on your traditional nutrition label is “sugars.” More precisely, these are actually simple sugars. I know, you’ve been taught that simple sugars are a bad thing. And if you’re not actively performing, that’s generally true. If you are engaging in an endurance event, however, science has not yet found a better fuel than simple sugars. They are processed quickly by the stomach, and are turned into glycogen by the muscles quickly, as well.
However, just like they are processed quickly, they are used up quickly. Hence, there is the “crash” that is often associated with gels (and with Milky Way bars, too, which is why I only use them at the end of my runs).
Science Warning: the following paragraphs contain detailed scientific analysis.
Some gel products are almost entirely simple sugars. Translate: big quick boost, big quick crash. Even if you replenish regularly and quickly, you are likely to experience large fluctuations in your energy levels after you ingest them, as your body accepts then exhausts these fuels. (Too much sugar, by the way, can also be very bad for the belly during a run.) If you’ve been a port-a-potty regular on the course and take in lots of sports drinks, gels, chews, bars, oranges, bananas and/or Mars Bars, you should probably consider cutting back on two or three of the above.
Ultimately, it’s the “other” category of carbohydrates (the one that’s usually notlisted) that is essential to sustainingenergy levels from a gel. That other, unlisted carb is the kind that nutritionists say we should feed our body more regularly, and is generally called a complex carbohydrate. Now, why the best carb for the human body would be the only kind notlisted in a nutritional label is beyond my power of understanding. You’ll have to ask the USDA for its wisdom on that one.
So, let’s look at, say a GU Energy Gel, tri-berry flavor.
GU's nutritional label says it will give you 100 calories of fire for the furnace.
It offers 23 grams of “Total Carbohydrates.”
Of those carbs, 7 of them are “Total Sugars.”
Now you have to do the math
Okay, I’ll help you; I’ve got my calculator app open.
We start with 23 grams of total carbs, then subtract the 7 grams of sugars. That means the fine folks at GU give us 16 grams of complex carbohydrates in each packet. Those carbs are processed more slowly than simple sugars, but also last longer before being depleted by the muscles. In general, that seems to be true of the GU gel profile. It offers slightly fewer simple sugars for less of a spike, and somewhat more complex carbs for a more sustaining energy boost. (This was much more true five years ago, but as the years have progressed, other brands are trending toward the GU methodology of fewer simple carbs and more complex ones. The Hammer Brand often even surpasses GU, depending on the flavor. Keep in mind that this analysis was just one flavor. The numbers can range significantly. But that’s okay, because it gives you another opportunity to practice your rusty math skills.
Chews seem to follow the same brand-name profiles, with GU and Hammer generally having fewer simple sugars than most brands, but it’s important to note that almost all chews have a higher sugar quotient than gels. If you haven’t tried these delightful confections, you might want to experiment. I remember the first time I tried GU chomps. They were given out at a half-marathon I was running, and I figured, “What the heck. Why not try it out?” I was only running the race to keep my friend Alex company.
I opened the pack (which was a bit of a chore, I might add), and threw two in my mouth.
A half-mile later, I was still chewing.
At the next water stop, I was still chewing.
A full mile and a half after putting the things in my mouth, they finally dissolved in my cheek. Whew.
(This might have been a blessing, or a curse. On the one hand, I was getting a bit annoyed by my inability to get these gelatinous chew-toys down my gullet. On the other hand, for the entire 1.5 miles, I was solely focused on my chewing, and ran my best splits of the morning.
You can decide for yourself if the experience is a worthwhile one for you. Truth be told, I have learned how to run and chew at the same time, and sometimes will take the gummy-bear-chew route when I just can’t stomach another gel.)
Recommendations: GU and Hammer Gels. GU Chomps.
(*Honestly, if you’re going to do the chew thing, jellybeans are much cheaper, much tastier, and not far removed from the nutritional profile of most chews. That is: it's just a sugar rush, but at least a pleasant one).
What? You wanted me to discuss flavors, too?!
Oh, sure, I’ve tried almost all of GU’s, PowerBar’s, Hammer’s and one or two other brands. For my money (literally), I can assess all of them in varying levels of disgusting. (Note: their taste and texture are even worse when you’re running, so don’t assume because you’ve had one before a run that you’ll be able to choke the stuff down at Mile 9.
Anyway, in talking with most of you good folks, I’ve found that flavor is entirely preferential. Chocolate lovers choose the chocolate and coffee flavors, though for me I’ve found that those leave an annoyingly thick, chalky aftertaste. The very nature of gels is cloying sweetness, so don’t expect anything less than a gulp of gooey paste. Personally, I find the tarter flavors to be the least unbearable, so lemon, lime, and cranberry flavors go down in less than a quarter-mile and leave a fresher, if still disgusting, aftertaste. Other flavors stick in my cheek for a while before I can suppress that gag reflex enough to let the stuff slide down my throat.
A few years back, I did find a seasonal flavor from the GU folks, called Peppermint Stick. It was a holiday release, and it tasted a lot like a melted candy cane—almost tasty. But I haven’t found them in several years, so I can only assume they have been discontinued. If you find them out there, please drop me a note. I'd love to hoard some more!
For any of the above, it’s vitally important that you don’t try out anything when you’re going to be far from home, a park, a bathroom… and never use something for a race that you haven’t tried multiple times. It’s just like wearing new shoes to a race. You really don’t want to discover anything new about your body on race day.
Oh, and just in case your brain hasn’t exploded from all the science and math, there’s one more thing to add: don’t combine gel/chomp use with sport drink use. You see, all those ratios go out the window when you add the simple sugars from sport drinks to the mix. It’s likely to wreak havoc on your belly and your chip time. I’d like to say there’s a simple formula for dealing with THAT quandary, but there isn’t. In all likelihood, you're going to be overdosing on sugars if you double-dip on gels, chews, and/or sport drinks. So, just keep things simple: if you’re using a gel or a chew, your drink of choice should be water.
For my money (and let's not pretend that gels and chews aren't pricey), based on taste, composition, and palatability, I would choose the following brands in the following order:
GU Roctane (caffeine) or Energy Gel
Of course, that’s only for pre- and during-running nutrition. Post-running nutrition is a different story entirely, but we can save that one for another time. This was complicated enough for one month. But isn’t that what being a runner is all about: making ourselves crazy trying to get an extra second out of our bodies?
You know you’re a middle-of-the-pack runner if:
• You understand what the word biomechanically means.
• You buy your shoes online, because you now understand more about shoes than most of the salespeople at the running shoe store.
• The only time you saw the new guy’s face at the Saturday group run was when you met. Then you only got to notice what good form he had that first mile. You didn’t see him again after that.
• You ran a race, or trained on any of the following days: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day.
• You still get chills when you hear Vangelis.
• You watch that scene from Forrest Gump where he runs across the country three times and think to yourself, “I’d like to do that one day. But only one time across the country. Three would be ridiculous.”
• You have trouble waking up every day of the week except Saturday, when you’re meeting your teammates for your weekly run.
• All the songs on your iPhone are your running soundtrack.
• Your wife got you a marathon book for Christmas and a gift card to the running store.
• Your family vacation destinations just happen to have a 10k going on that weekend.
• You try really hard to understand science even though you were always a C student in science, because you really want to be a better runner.
Jim Nicosia is a teacher, author and children’s literacy advocate. He has participated in races from 800 meters to the marathon, proudly finishing in the top half (but not in the top quarter) of most of those races. He earned his first victory in his age group in a race at the age of 50, and placed second in the USATF New Jersey Mini-2 championship, and first in the Mini-3 championship for 2019 (but only because he ran a lot of races).
His website is www.JimNicosia.com.