The exercise food market has exploded these last few years. We now have more energy, recovery and even preparation products than ever before. It wasn’t that long ago that I was using flat Coke as an energy drink. Now I can choose a product to eat or drink before a ride, during a ride and after a ride. But do we need it?
The obvious answer to that question is that it depends on your physical condition, your diet and how much exercise you’re doing. As a rule of thumb, you should always aim to get your energy and nutrients from a good diet, but there’s nothing wrong with supplementing that with an energy product on longer or harder rides.
If you’re riding for less than 90 minutes outside of competition, you shouldn’t need to use energy gels. If you’re out on a Sunday club run or touring the countryside at 70% effort, you don’t need gels. You should only need gels if you’re riding at a continuous high intensity for a long period of time.
If you read my piece about carb loading, you will already know that all of us have enough stored carbohydrate for around 90 minutes in our liver and muscles. This carbohydrate is stored as glycogen and is our fast access energy source. We also have around 15,000 calories stored as fat around our body. So why would we need extra?
How energy gels work
Essentially, energy gels are designed to help top up that ready store of glycogen. All gels are manufactured differently, but the good ones will contain a mix of glucose and fructose. Glucose is fast acting sugar while fructose is more complex and takes longer to digest. A 2:1 mix of the two is currently regarded as ideal as this is how it appears in fruit.
There are also isotonic gels that contain water and electrolytes as well as energy. These can work well too. Some gels also contain caffeine which is a stimulant. Current science says caffeine can reduce the perception of effort through exercise so can be useful for longer rides.
The body can only absorb around 60g of carbohydrates an hour. Therefore, most good energy gels will contain around that much, or slightly less. If you take on more than 60g, you won’t digest it and can end up with nausea or the sudden urge to be sick at the side of the road.
When to use gels on the bike
Depending on your physical condition, the energy from a gel will either be absorbed into your muscles or into your brain. The ideal condition is for the glycogen from the gel to be absorbed through the intestinal wall and into the muscles right away. But it might go to your brain too.
As you ride your bike, glycogen is constantly in demand from muscles, meaning your brain can be starved of energy. This can result in feeling fuzzy headed, light headed or just not thinking clearly. One of the advantages of gels is that they can be like a shot of adrenalin, fulfilling that shortfall of glycogen and giving the brain the energy it needs to function.
It takes between 15 to 45 minutes for your body to begin absorbing an energy gel so you need to plan your intake in advance. If you have a big hill or long effort coming up, you need to give your body time to be able to absorb and transport the energy before you need it in order to perform at your best.
Marathon runners take a gel around an hour into a race and then repeat every 45 minutes or so. Unless the situation demands something different from me, I tend to use this as a rule of thumb.
Important stuff about gels
Not all of us will be able to absorb gels efficiently on the bike. When the body is under stress, it draws blood away from the stomach to power the muscles. In some people, it slows down digestion. In others, it stops completely.
You need to train your stomach to continue working the same as you train your legs. If you’re training for a competition or event, take some food with you when you ride. Eat little and often to ensure your stomach continues working throughout your ride. Do this over longer rides and you will “train” your stomach to stay active under stress.
It is essential that you try a new energy gel before a competition or important ride. They are concentrated sources of energy that not every stomach will agree with. All of us have gel types we can work with and some we just cannot. It’s a subjective thing that you will simply have to try to find the right one for you. If you’re trying a new brand of gel, do it when nothing is at stake. If you do get sick, you can take care of business without losing the race.
Also, when you take gels, always flush it down with water. It not only helps the gel go down, it gives the stomach moisture to help with digestion. Do not mix gel and energy drink as you’ll just overload and be sick.
Energy gels are not designed to fix the shortcomings of a poor diet or poor preparation. They are designed to provide quick bursts of energy when you need it most. Use them wisely and they can form an integral part of your training.