Energy gels … what an enigma.

I never used energy gels or chews until I trained for my first marathon. I always thought that the gels probably had some kind of placebo effect where they would make the runner feel a boost that would change the brain waves and convince the runner that they had more in that tank to run on. Sort of like they’d trick me into pushing on. I completed several half marathons without ever trying a gel or chew, and I did just fine. I was able to complete all of my half marathons in less than two hours, which was just great to me. I mean, after all, I’m not some Spring chicken. I’m a late thirty-something wife, mother, and librarian … I’m certainly no elite runner. I honestly think that I sort of thought it would be like cheating if I took the gel. Not cheating like, if a person uses a gel they don’t actually earn their time in the race or they should be disqualified or anything. I think I just thought that if I didn’t need it, then I shouldn’t use it, because it would be like I was cheating myself. I kept thinking, that’s really for marathoners and people that run super fast. Once I started training for a marathon, that’s when I started to experiment with the gels and chews, and now I’m certain I couldn’t complete a half marathon without a gel.

I started with chews thinking that I might like to have something to chew on while I ran, rather than having to swallow  gooey stuff that was somewhere in between the state of a liquid and the state of a solid. But with the chews, I quickly realized that they weren’t for me. I found that I actually hate the sensation of chewing on a rubbery thing while I’m trying to run. So, I went back to the energy gels and I can now safely say that I prefer getting it over with quickly by swallowing it down, rather than having to belabor it with all of the chewing.

So, once I had established that gels were my preferred method of receiving energy, next I started experimenting with brands, flavors, and caffeine vs. non caffeine gels. I tried using two caffeinated gels on a three hour long run, and found myself getting that shaky feeling that can accompany caffeine use, and I didn’t like it. I also had a faint upset stomach. So, I promptly switched to non caffeinated gels only.

Once I established that I needed non caffeinated gels, at least for the time being, and had narrowed down the flavors I preferred, I started to play with the frequency with which I used them. I consulted my trusty running coach, Google, and gathered as much information as possible. I found that some advise to take a gel before the workout, then another around the one hour mark, and yet another at the two hour mark of a three hour run. I also found that some advise to only take half at a time, but to take it every half hour. Some say to take the gels with caffeine only toward the end of a long run to ensure that it doesn’t upset the stomach. So, I formulated my game plan.

My plan: don’t take a gel before the run. Instead, drink water for that first hour, and take a gel at the 45 minute to one hour mark with water. Next, I would take a gel at the one hour and 45 minute mark, or the two hour mark with water. Still refraining from the caffeinated gels. But I can’t help but wonder, should I just train myself to handle the caffeinated gels, at least for the last one? Maybe it would give me that much needed boost at the end of a race?

I haven’t decided what will work exactly for me, but what I can say for sure is that the gels definitely help boost my mood and my estimation of how much steam I have left. Whether it’s a placebo effect, or the gels are actually restoring depleted carbohydrates, either way, I’m an energy gel user. I just have to figure out the best type, flavor, and frequency of use. 

Basically, I still haven’t figured it out yet.

35 thoughts on “Energy gels … what an enigma.

  1. I feel for you. I really didn’t like the feeling of eating during long runs especially if the “food” I have to eat is in gel form. Lol! To be able to tolerate it, I had to try different flavors of Gu until my taste buds accept it. Now, I’m okay with the espresso flavor but I only take 1 pack for a 2:30-3:00 hour run. I eat banana before the race, half of the gel after an hour and then the last half for the last 60-45 mins. 🙂

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  2. I’ve been experimenting with gel and find they work best for me at the 6 mile mark or 1 hour in. Don’t take one before the run because I fuel up on Kasha and almond milk prior to my runs. Did a 20 mile today and only had two gel pack so took the first at 8 miles and the second at 15 I learned I would need a minimum of three for 20 miles because I could feel my muscles cramp and stomach ache at 12 miles and again near the end. I hate Gel packs awful stuff.

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  3. It’s amazing that something so simple can require so much thought! I want to experiment with gels myself, I can’t imagine myself chewing while running. Right now it’s not an option as I don’t have the funds and am just now officially getting into training again (now that my feet injury is healing up, knock on wood!). However, I’m going to do plenty of research. Like you, I take the thorough approach to things like this! I loved reading your process with the gels so far!

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  4. I use fuel for my half marathons (haven’t done a full yet) and take one around the 45min mark, and the 2nd around the 1:30-1:45 mark (I’m not as fast as you -I’m a 2:20 something right now). I used the gels so much last year that I got sick of them, and now use the Honey Stinger chews. Those are easy for me to chew and run (vs the ShotBloks, which I like, but are too big/chewy for me to eat while running). Good luck experimenting!

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  5. Yea they do not work for everyone. I have smh with meals saying they are a good source of protein and/or fiber and they have less than 20 percent of protein and 7-10 grams of fiber in a 300 plus calorie meal. They do not make things like they used to.

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  6. i used a gel for the first time during training for my third half marathon. It made such a huge difference that i vowed to use it on race day. My previous two half marathons and trainings, I used chews but I’ve found I prefer the gel- performance wise. Or maybe it’s all in the mind. haha

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  7. Great post – I am still confused with energy gels. My friend advised for a half marathon take one at 4 miles, 8 and then 12, which I stuck to, seemed odd taking one at 4 – but it really helped me… not even sure if mine are caffeine ones, I am sure they are. Will keep reading your clog to see how you get on! x

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  8. I use a Clif bar in the first half of a long run, starting from mile four (1/3 of it), then again at eight and twelve… Then I switch to the Clif shot blocks, having two every few miles, as needed. The theory is eating the slower burn items earlier on so that I don’t really get too depleted, then switching to the faster burn items as my reserves start to run lower…

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  9. I’m almost ready to start training for my first Marathon, training begins end of Dec the Marathon is in May! I have used the GU gels while running my half marathons, I prefer the Salted Caramel and triple Berry! Like you I am unsure if they are truly giving me any benefit or if it is just in my head. For now I will keep using them until I find something else. The last half I ran they gave out Accel gel’s. I tried it after the run and it wasn’t as thick or gooey as a GU gel, I got the Chocolate flavor and it wasn’t half bad. I’ve also just bought the “Tailwind” powder to mix with water. I haven’t actually used it yet, but after reading many reviews and seeing post’s on FB pages about it I though it was worth a shot!

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  10. I like to consider myself new to running. I ran my first and only half marathon when I was 17, finishing in ~76 min. I am 35 now, nowhere near that level (lucky to finish 5 miles these days) and since I first heard about gels, have always been intrigued. The thought of eating or drinking anything within an hour of running or, for that matter, during a run, scares me! I’m afraid I would get sick or cramp up. Kudos to you for being willing to experiment! Good luck on your marathon!

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  11. tailwind is the answer. but i forgot what the question was. i’ve never found it in tejas, but you can order from running warehouse (free two day shipping! i have no financial ties to either company other than sending them money on a regulat basis.)

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  12. I drink a chocolate high protein Core Power when I get up, about 1 hour before run, longer if I have to drive to the start. Lately I’ve been mixing in cold brew coffee, mocha flavored. A doctor told us caffeine does not affect performance until four hour after it is consumed. This timing makes it effective at the end of my run, when needed. This routine usually helps me go to the bathroom before my run, very important part of prep.

    On the run, I eat Hammer Gels, Apple cinnamon flavored, every 45 min because that is how long it takes your body to consume your glycogen stores. Also drink 1 2 water, 1/2 G2 in my hand carry water bottle. For marathons I use Nuun or other salt tablet to fend off cramps at the end of the run, in addition to G2. My mile pace is 12 – 13 and I finished the Shiner Beer Run in 2:48 or so. Great time!


  13. By eating gels and drinking water/electrolytes, you are being smart, not cheating. You don’t expect your brain to function without food, why would you expect your body to perform at a high level without food?

    About an hour before a long run I drink a chocolate high protein Core Power; lately I’ve mixed it with a serving of cold brew coffee from Cameleon, mocha flavor. I don’t like fiber before a run. Even so, this routine helps me prepare for the run (i.e. go to the bathroom). We had a sports MD visit us @fortbendfit seminar; he told us that caffeine has no effect on a runner’s performance until 4 hours after it is consumed. Consuming caffeinated gels may wake you up but does not increase your performance until you have probably finished the race.

    Interestingly, Core Power is touted as an after-run protein drink but I cannot drink them after runs, they upset my stomach.

    During the run I eat Hammer Gel, apple cinnamon flavor, 1 packet about every 45 min. Friends eat a gel every 3-4 miles, depending on pace. Citrus flavors are too acidic for me; chocolate makes me want to drink milk. Your body’s glycogen stores are depleted after 45 min of running, so the gel is timed to recover from that depletion. I also drink a 1:1 mixture of ice and G2 for water and electrolyte replacement (on the course I mix water and Gatorade about 1:1). I tried eating energy bars when I first starting eating but it took too much water to wash them down and I do not like eating fiber while running, to avoid digestive problems.

    Training is a time to try different flavors, brands and forms. I do eat Shot Blocks too; if they are cold, I hold it in my mouth for a while to warm up the gel.

    On warm days I drop a Nuun tablet or two into my drink after about mile 20 or so. I’ve had cramps that were alleviated by the extra electrolytes. You sweat a lot out there.

    My running pace is 12-13 min/mile, so I am out on the marathon course for over 5 hours. I have to eat to maintain my energy level. Runners with faster paces can depend on water stations or friends to give them electrolyte drinks and gels. I cannot do that.

    Run long, run fast!
    @thedustinator (Twitter)
    @dustintexan (Instagram)

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