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Gels Versus No Gels

You have signed up for a big race, you have researched via google and recommendation is to use gels as fuelling, so you buy a sponsored brand to try and then you may experience any of the following: Gagging, diarrhoea, complete high, or you, may just find that you get on well with them and feel fuelled throughout the race.

Before starting ask yourself, do you feel you “have” to use gels as that is what you have seen most people use? Do you feel knowledgeable, or do you feel that you have no idea where to start and what is best for you?

This is my story, training plan for Amsterdam Marathon started on a Sunday, first up was 15 miles, long slow run, undulating. Should be no problem if everything goes to plan and I have enough energy to get back, shower, change and collect son number 2 from camp, easy right, I mean I have done this before?

Difference being this time was my coach is eager for me to try gels. My husband gets on with them, most other runners use them, including Mo Farah so why should I be any different?

Absolute train wreck for me ☹, whilst running they did sort of work but not to the sustainable level that my body needs. I took the gel at halfway point, around 7.5 miles and thought that would be fine, but it did not result in that at all. Lack of energy, irritability, mind all over the place and could not generally “function” afterwards. I was flabbergasted what had gone wrong?

After doing some research, other considerations need to be considered. There are so many different types and brands out there and for me they must be kind to my stomach, so I settled on a vegan brand, but it is worth trying out a few.

How do gels work? is a useful site for getting the basic science without any real over promotion or opinion. Energy gels replenishes your depleted carbohydrate stores when running. Our body uses 2 sources of energy fats and carbohydrates, fats are harder to breakdown so the body uses carbohydrates, yet our body can only store a certain amount of carbohydrates and hence the need to refuel. The sugar in the gels is easily absorbed into the blood stream and then is absorbed by the active muscles and organs. It is essential to take gels with water to ensure efficient transmission.

One gel containing about 25g of carbohydrates will give you roughly 45 minutes of running. To feel the effect of the gel it can take anything from 3-15 minutes. It is recommended by some to slowly take the gel whilst running over a period of 4 mins.

My second attempt at a training run was not much better, drinking the water, taking the gel as specified above, and still no improvement. Should I just give up? Before when doing a marathon, I was drinking a carbohydrate drink and eating energy balls at 6, 12 and 18 miles and that seemed to work?

The downside to eating “real” food whilst on the run was being able to not lose pace and ensuring that the “energy” reached my muscles quickly to support the pace and duration.

With a second attempt not being successful, I needed to reset and rethink! Then it hit me, what I was trying to do was match when my husband was taking his gels and at his mileage markers, but my body and his body are not made up the same and my build and how my body uses energy is at complete ends of extreme!

My next attempt was the third week of training. This week I planned to take the gels at 6miles and 12-mile markers and see if there was any improvement. Bingo! Result, coupled with my “race” breakfast, my run starting at an easy pace, I felt alert and energised. As the miles past I was very set in my mind about when to take the gels and incorporating the above tips, first one went down and I felt confident to carry on, second one same effect, I was waiting for that feeling of “I am starving” to hit and the need to eat now effect. Nothing

I had found my optimum gel taking markers and made a note in my food diary. But still posed the question of why gels and not “real” food like energy balls.


The long and short of it is that gels are absorbed into your body a lot quicker and gives you the fuel your muscles need to carry on. If you were to take real food, it simply takes longer for your body to breakdown and feel the benefits. It also depends on the type of race. Having run an Ultra, real food is much more advocated, because you are not running at pace, like for a marathon. The approach for an ultra is more around run/walk and therefore energy and body may prefer refuelling via foods and fats.

Whatever you decide to use, the key is to practice. Experiment with different brands, listen to your body, experiment with different mile markers as to when to take the fuel and see what works best for you. My last piece of advice is do not think that your body will not need something, and you just wait, you will more than likely crash and burnout.


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