Sports hydration gels have become a popular type of energy source for endurance athletes over the past couple of decades. Gels provide a concentrated source of carbohydrates that can be easily consumed while racing. The thick, gelatinous consistency allows the nutrients to pass through the stomach and be absorbed quickly. Runners use gels as a way to restore glycogen stores and prevent hitting “the wall” during events. Here is an overview of how sports gels work and who may benefit from using them.
Sports packs contain between 20-40 grams of carbohydrates per portion, typically in the form of glucose polymers. Some gels use fructose as well. The high carb concentration provides a rapid source of energy to taxed muscles. Most gels have a texture like syrup. This enables the nutrients to pass through the stomach faster than solids. A serving of gel fuels like a sports drink, but in a more convenient form.
In addition to carbs, most gels also contain key electrolytes like salt and potassium. These minerals are depleted in sweat during strenuous exercise. Restoring electrolytes helps maintain fluid levels in the body and prevent painful muscle cramps. The sodium also helps with absorption of the sugars. Electrolyte content varies between brands, so athletes should compare nutrition labels. Caffeine is also commonly added to gels for an extra boost of energy.
When to Use Sports Gels
Endurance athletes mainly utilize gels during extended training or events lasting 60 minutes or more. Common uses include:
- Marathon or half marathon races
- Century or half century bike rides
- Triathlon competitions
- Soccer, hockey, lacrosse games
- Hiking or backpacking excursions
Gels provide rapid nutrition for the glycogen burning phase of activity. Most athletes consume one gel serving every 30-45 minutes of sustained strenuous exercise. Proper pacing of gel intake helps maintain blood sugar levels. Excess may cause GI distress. Careful use avoids energy crashes.
Advantages of Gels
Sports gels offer many advantages over other forms of fuel like energy bars, chews and sports drinks. Benefits include:
- Portability – Gel pouches are compact and easy to carry while biking. Minimal packaging also produces less waste.
- Rapid absorption – The viscous liquid consistency gets absorbed quickly relative to bars. Provides a fast energy boost.
- Precise dosing – With each pouch containing one serving, gels offer precise to manage consumption while exercising. Difficult to over-consume.
- Variety – Gels come in a wide selection of flavors like fruit, chocolate, vanilla and more. Athletes can choose pleasing tastes.
- Caffeine options – Many gels contain caffeine for an extra kick. Provides a physical and mental edge.
While generally safe and effective when used correctly, sports gels do come with some potential disadvantages including:
- Expensive – Gels cost significantly more than sports drinks per serving. The costs can add up over many uses.
- GI distress – Consuming too many gels can cause cramps due to the high carbohydrate dose. Careful dosing is key.
- Sugar content – The carb concentration leads to a high glycemic index. Individuals need to monitor blood sugar when using gels.
- Dental health – The sugary consistency can damage tooth enamel over time. Proper oral cleaning is recommended after use.
- Limited calories – Gels only provide carbs. Athletes also need protein and fat for balanced sports hydration gel natural nutrition.
- Not thirst quenching – Gels hydrate via sugars and electrolytes but do not quench thirst like water or sports drinks.
While not necessarily recommended for everyday use, sports gels can provide a convenient source of mid-activity fuel for endurance athletes. Proper utilization can help sustain energy levels and performance during prolonged training and events. Athletes should test different brands and flavors during training to find which gels work best for their needs.