Energy Gels – The secret to performance

Have you ever wondered how athletes can sustain energy over incredibly long distances? We take a look at Energy Gels and how they play a major role in maintaining energy levels to keep your performance at its peak.

You can’t help but be amazed when reading stories about athletes competing in mind boggling endurance events, at speeds and distances most of us would consider ‘a lengthy journey’ in the car. I often wonder if it is simply an athletes genetic makeup that allows them to do such incredible feats over and over again, or is there more to this performance than simply genes and training? Could us mere mortals utilise some of their secrets to boost our own performance in our favourite sporting endeavours?

Fortunately, the answer is yes, and it’s a lot simpler than you might first think. When we exercise, our body burns off 2 energy sources, carbohydrates and fats. This energy burning process happens due to a number of factors including heart rate, level of fitness, your diet, and how you have trained your body to run off the relevant fuel sources available. That’s a very basic overview of a very complex process, but all we really need to understand is, we burn off energy when exercising.

So we have established what happens when we exercise – we begin to burn off energy in the form of carbs and fats. So what can we do about it? Well, the very basic idea behind an ‘Energy Gel’ is to replace carbohydrates burnt off during exercise. Without carbohydrate replenishment, we burn off the carbohydrates stored in our bodies (our energy reserve) and eventually run out of steam. When this happens the effects are instantly recognisable and often referred too by athletes as ‘hitting the wall’. The very moment when your body has nothing left and you literally feel like you have slammed face first into an invisible brick wall! This can be agonising, not only physically, but also mentally. Imagine hitting the wall 1 mile before crossing the finishing line after months of training and build up to your event, and the simple reason behind not finishing wasn’t from a lack of effort or trying, but purely down to a lack of understanding of correct nutrition to fuel performance.

Armed with this new found knowledge, thoughts instantly turn to ‘how do I get carbs whilst exercising?’ ‘How many should I consume?’ ‘Is it 1 carb for every carb burned?’ At this point we walk into a minefield of scientific research, with every company out their claiming to have unlocked the secret to the perfect ratio. Scientific research is everywhere on the subject, but don’t let all the confusing arguments and claims put you off investigating further. Expanding your knowledge on this subject is key to improving your performance overall.

In reality, we are all unique. We all find different ways in which our body responds to certain foods and quantities. We have our own training routines, our own lives to live, family commitments, jobs…the list is endless, rarely ever that similar to another persons…and a far cry away from a full time paid athletes life! All is not lost however, we now know that we need to replenish carbohydrates during exercise, and the easiest method developed for doing this is by using ‘Energy Gels’.

An Energy Gel is a mixture of ingredients in gel form (usually contained within a disposable sachet) that is small, easy to carry on you, and can be consumed during exercise without too much effort to help replenish lost carbohydrates. Carbohydrates can not be replaced ‘1 for 1’, instead, the idea of an energy gel is to replenish some of the lost carbohydrates and slow the down the rate before we run out of energy completely. A gel is much easier for your body to digest and absorb than solid foods. When your body has to break down solid foods, it has to work much harder actually increasing the amount of energy you are using to fuel the digestion process. So the solution to this is gels.

The type of carbohydrate you consume also has profound effects on performance. We all know that if we give a small child sugar they’re bouncing off the walls, high as kites before crashing, becoming very grumpy and falling asleep. This ‘sugar rush’ is from high glycemic carbohydrates. Carbohydrates which cause your blood sugars to spike rapidly, with a short burst of energy. The downside to this ‘energy spike’ is that the perusing sugar crash leaves you in a much worse position than before you took the energy boost in the first place, so in terms of endurance performance, this is not a good solution. You can self-induce a state known as ‘hypoglycemia’ from such a sugar crash, and this can be very dangerous. Not only will this ruin your event, but it can also endanger your life. The main carbohydrate used in energy gels which can cause such a crash is Maltodextrin, which sits higher on the glycemic index than table sugar. These gels are mostly made of water and chemicals, the ingredient list on the back of a product is listed in hierarchy, with water followed by Maltodextrin as the 2 main ingredients. Learn more about the glycemic index with the Glycemic Chart.

However, Maltodextrin is not all evil, and can be very useful for short bursts of energy where you are needing a sprint finish for example. When using an energy gel made solely using Maltodextrin as its carbohydrate source, once you start using the gels you need to continue using them. Normally, a gel every 20 minutes will keep you from plummeting off the sugar crash edge. This is not ideal when you are competing in an event lasting more than 1 hour, as the amount of gels you need to consume, combined with all the chemical ingredients to make them, will more often than not leave you with severe gastric distress.

You may be wondering if you should just use purely low glycemic gels based on sugar crash risk? Well, the benefit of a low ‘GI’ (glycemic index) gel, is that you won’t suffer from a sugar crash, so the gel every 20 minutes rule is out of the window. But, you also won’t have the instant ‘hit’ of energy like with a fast acting gel, so it is not good for short sprint races as an example. A lower GI gel is more suited to endurance events, where the delivery of energy is released slowly into the bloodstream, replenishing lost carbohydrates at a slower rate, allowing you to perform at a higher level than without any carb replenishment at all. This is in fact how our Agave#9 Cocoa Energy Gel came to exist. It was created after a mountaineering expedition to Mount St. Helens in Washington (state), USA. The group of climbers had all packed high glycemic energy gels and sugary sweets, which caused multiple cases of hypoglycemia and made the whole expedition a lot more dangerous and difficult than it needed to be. After the expedition, Mr John Sample created the Agave#9 Cocoa Energy Gel, and our story began.

Agave#9 Cocoa Energy Gel sachet resting on top of a rice cake

So what about mixed carbohydrates Energy Gels? The potential solution to all round energy replenishment perhaps? Blended carbohydrate products combining both low and high glycemic carbs certainly offer a good middle ground. This combination of carbohydrates is arguably the most flexible and easiest to use, the energy release will be relatively quick and sustained, lasting longer than a high GI gel, but with a lower sugar spike. There are a lot of technical factors to consider, such as absorption rates of ingredients and how each ingredient might interact with another to speed up or slow down its absorption, but human factors such as how your own body reacts to certain ingredients will also play a major role in the overall equation of individual optimal nutrition.

At Monk Nutrition, we manufacture plant-based organic and natural ingredient Energy Gels in both low GI carbohydrate (which can be used safely by diabetics), and mixed carbohydrate blended gels, which contain both low and high GI carbs. Our low GI carb ingredient (which is used in all of our gels) comes from organic agave syrup, whilst the higher GI carbs come from real fruit powders, delivering energy quicker to the muscles. We prefer plant-based Energy Gels because of the nutritional benefits from the plant ingredients, and the fact that we don’t have to use any additives which can potentially cause gastric distress. Our plant based Energy Gels are suitable for vegetarian and vegan athletes, as well as meat eaters.

Ultimately, the energy gel type that will work best for you is as individual and unique as you are. There is no ‘one size fits all’, and the best recommendation we can make is for you to try different product brands and research the ingredients. Experimenting during training is the best and safest way to understand what is working and what isn’t, without harming your race results. By trying out different gels, you can find the perfect match to your chosen sport and boost your overall performance in a cost effective way. You may find you have adverse gastric reactions to some gels but not others. The energy delivery may not match your event at all. The gels taste and texture may not suit your palate. It truly is a case of trial and error, but a trial that should not be ignored. To not replenish carbohydrates during exercise is to limit your potential performance.

We hope this article has been insightful, and helps with understanding how to ‘fuel up’ for performance at a very basic level. Our team are available to discuss the subject in greater detail, so if you have a burning question then don’t hesitate to get in touch with us via email or our contact form – Contact us.

Enjoy and have fun out there!

#TEAM9 – Monk Nutrition UK

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