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Sports Nutrition: sweets or gels?

Isotonic, 2:1, triple action…. You can be forgiven for recognising these terms but have no idea why they’re relevant to you. After all, these are just marketing terms banded around by nutrition brands, right? Well, these are actually useful terms but it’s not always easy to find the information needed to make sense of the jargon. For this reason, it’s worth exploring what factors make a good energy gel.

Gels

The main component of any energy gel is carbohydrate. For endurance exercise like cycling, carbohydrates are the primary fuel source. Dependent upon the intensity at which you’re cycling, carbohydrates will likely contribute to 70-90% of the energy used. Therefore it is essential, that you not only have large stores of carbohydrate already stored as glycogen (~600g), you should also look to supplement during cycling.

So what are the best practices when picking your gel?

  • Carbohydrate types: In academic studies, a range of carbohydrate types were used when determining the performance benefits of supplementation, ranging from glucose, galactose, sucrose and fructose. However, a number of studies found that a combination of carbohydrates were the best method to enhance performance. A combination of glucose and fructose was digested at a rate of 1.75 grams of carbohydrate per minute, whereas glucose alone only provided 1 gram of carbohydrate per minute. This faster digestion of carbohydrate provides a more readily available supply of carbohydrate for the body to use during exercise. This method of carbohydrate ingestion had shown an additional 8% improvement in cycling performance. Considering David Brailsford’s famous mantra of ‘marginal gains’ this is huge. ‘Where can I get this magical formula?’ I hear you screaming. Well, it is now readily available through a number of nutrition brands. For example, Torq offers their 2:1 formula – this is 2 parts maltodextrin (glucose) and 1 part fructose.

  • Carbohydrate strength: Research has also shown that the concentration of glucose in energy drinks has a large influence on absorption rates. A concentration of 6% carbohydrate is considered optimal for absorption into the bloodstream for the small intestine. A carbohydrate strength of 6% allows for the most glucose to be absorbed through the small intestine and into the bloodstream, without withdrawing water. SIS GO gels are labelled as isotonic precisely for this reason. You could ask the question, why don’t they just use more than 6% and give us better value for money!? Well, as mentioned just a sentence above, concentrations of more than 6% draws water from the stomach and intestine leaving it only one place to go…(eww)

 

Alternatives

There are numerous alternatives to energy gels that give you that of carbohydrate. Old Dave has been using jelly babies instead of gels for years. While there are alternatives including sweets, chocolate bars, flapjacks, none are able to provide the optimal amount of carbohydrate in the most efficient time. For example, old Dave’s jelly babies are packed full of sugar, great! However, you now know that your body can digest a combination of glucose and fructose at a much faster rate, giving you that energy kick sooner whilst replenished lost carbohydrates. That doesn’t mean you can leave old Dave behind though, he’s probably got the tube you left behind to make space for all of the extra energy gels you’ve brought with you today. Yes, solid foods are essential on the bike. I can barely go 90-minutes without ripping open the chocolate, peanut energy bar, or Banana, but these aren’t scientifically tailored for performance. It’s about finding a balance between keeping the hunger pains away and smashing into the wall.

 

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Casey Walker

Casey Walker

Community User

Running Enthusiast.