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Energy Gels – what they do and how to take them

Energy Gels – what they do and how to take them


Energy gels are a form of carbohydrate that help provide energy over endurance events such as a marathon. It is important to practise taking energy gels in the lead up to a marathon as, just like your muscles, your digestive system also needs to be trained. As a general rule, you need to practice your race day nutrition 2-3 times before race day. I am currently training for the Dublin marathon and have been using gels on all of my long runs. I am slowly getting the hang of figuring out when exactly to take them, to help prevent myself hitting a wall both mentally and physically.

When exercising for long periods of time, your body relies on carbohydrate as its main source of energy. Unfortunately our body can only store enough energy for approximately 90-120 minutes, depending on your pace. This is the same, even if you carb load prior to a run.

Digesting energy gels can vary from one individual to the next but generally it can take 45 minutes for the glucose from the gel to be absorbed into the muscle. However, before this happens the gel will give you a quick boost of energy. This is because our brain uses the glucose stored in our blood, so is absorbed quicker. This is useful in preventing the feeling of ‘hitting the wall’ when running a marathon. It is normally recommended to take one gel every 45-60 minutes. Practice taking your gel at the same intervals you plan on taking them during race day.

Often gels can cause an upset stomach if it is too much glucose for your digestive system to break down at once. Practicing taking the gels and trying to take small portions of the gel more frequently can help with this. Taking small portions frequently can also help maintain our energy levels over a long period of time. As we exercise, blood is diverted away from our digestive system towards our muscles. For this reason, it is important not to overload with too much sugar. Always take gels with water and never with energy drink. This will cause a sugar overload and make you feel really sick!

If energy gels do not agree with you at all, alternatives such jelly babies, banana or flat coke can produce similar effects. You might need to get one of your supporters to give this to you at a certain point during the race to avoid carrying them.

There are numerous brands of gels out there, all pretty similar. Isotonic gels are those that are diluted with water. The most common type of gel is a mixture of glucose and fructose. Some gels may contain caffeine. This however can cause dehydration and is a diuretic so may only be appropriate to take towards the end of the run. I have been taking Hi5 gels, which seem to be available in most running/cycling shops around Dublin. The flavour isn’t too overpowering and they are a nice consistency to try and eat while running! I have a personal preference for the orange flavour but try all flavours available to figure out what works best for you.

With just over 3 weeks to go until the marathon, besides focusing on nutrition it is obviously important to address any niggles you may be experiencing rather than resting and hoping they go away. Next weeks blog post will be on recognising the signs of injury. Contact us here at Ballsbridge Physio if you getting any aches and pains to get them sorted before it’s too late!

written by: Niamh Wynne, (MISCP)

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