Are Those Energy Gels Runners Eat Really Worth It?

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The week of a big running race, although you're nearing the end of your training program, there's still a lot of preparation that goes into the big day. Which eye-catching leggings are you going to wear? What type of pasta will you eat to carb-load the night before? Where will you meet your friends afterwards? And are you planning to eat energy goo?
If you've never heard of energy gels before, they're these little packets of a flavored gelatinous material, that many runners choose to quickly eat in the midst of a run. They come in all kinds of seemingly "delicious" flavors, from Birthday Cake to Salted Caramel, but are generally regarded by runners as a disgusting and necessary evil. But do you really have to eat the gross goo? For some runners, it can be helpful.
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Most gels are meant to provide a shot of carbohydrates, which are the body's primary fuel source during endurance activities like running, says Tiffany Chag, MS, RD, CSCS, a performance coach and registered dietician at Hospital for Special Surgery. When you feel like you're "hitting a wall" during a run, eating a gel can give your body energy to keep going. Some gels contain a small amount of electrolytes (substances like potassium and sodium that you lose when you sweat) and caffeine, which some people find can improve exercise performance, she says.
In certain instances, eating energy gels is helpful. "Supplemental fueling really depends on the duration and intensity of the training session," Chag says. As a basic rule, if your run is between 1-2.5 hours long, you should aim to eat up to 60g of carbs per hour. Subsequently, for runs longer than 2.5 hours you should try to eat 60-90g of carbs per hour. That means, you'll need to fuel every 15-20 minutes to meet your needs, she says. Everyone is different, so it's important to test out different strategies — both the timing and the actual products — to figure out what works for you, she says.

Supplemental fueling really depends on the duration and intensity of the training session.

Tiffany Chag, MS, RD, CSCS, a performance coach and registered dietician at Hospital for Special Surgery
Some people may find energy gels nasty (the main reason they're so popular is because you can eat them while you run without really having to stop). But there are other foods rich in carbs that you can snack on instead if the energy gels really gross you out, Chag says. For example, you could eat pretzels, bananas, or a PB&J sandwich, she says. "Ideally, find [a food] that includes some salt (electrolytes) and avoid foods higher in fat and fiber," she says.
Regardless of what you're eating, whether it's a gel or a whole food, it's common to experience some gastrointestinal distress, especially later on in a race, Chag says. "This is due to physiological, mechanical, and nutritional reasons, such as blood flow redirected to the muscles and away from the intestines, repeated impact during running, and eating foods higher in fiber or fat, respectively," she says. Some people on Reddit say that energy gels can cause diarrhea, because the nutrients are so highly concentrated. To avoid this, it's best to drink plenty of water, and fuel early on in the run. And hey, even if you do have to stop for the bathroom in the middle of a race, it's not a big deal at all — Des Linden did, and she won the Boston Marathon.
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